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Sunday, December 29, 2013

Christmas Mass with Bocelli...

He did it again.

After showing up unexpectedly and performing last Easter, internationally renowned tenor Andrea Bocelli, considered by many the greatest voice of our time, made another surprise appearance at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Miami Beach during an afternoon Christmas Mass.

The Catholic raised blind superstar, who has sold over 80 million records worldwide and sung for Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, sang Silent Night during Communion and O Come All Ye Faithful at another point in the liturgy.

Although not exactly the decorum you would want displayed at Mass, many star-struck parishioners were quick to whip out their smart phones and tablets to capture the emotional moment...

Then again, I should speak.  My wife had to call my attention when, in my own star-struck(ness), I tried to whip out my cell phone at a Sunday Mass celebrated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York earlier this year!

In a television interview, Bocelli said, "For Christmas, I absolutely want to attend Mass.  If they ask me to sing, I sing.  I'm happy about it."  He continued, "I am Christian, so for me it's the most important day of the year."

Now, whether he attends Mass outside of these two important Christian holy days, I'm not sure but he definitely made an impression on the congregation, who were moved not only by his voice but by his apparent faith as well...

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Best Family Quote of Season...

There we were opening up our presents on Christmas Day and our astute 9-year-old daughter makes a great observation. 

She says matter-of-factly with a smile on her face, "Look, Santa wrapped Mommy's gifts just like Daddy does."

It seems she has taken notice of the way I try to make the wrapping paper look seamless by folding it at the edge of the box, instead of in the middle, like I've seen professional wrappers do it in stores!

Do you think she's catching on?...

Friday, December 20, 2013

Words of Wisdom on Men...

“Men are like wine-some turn to vinegar, but the best improve with age.”  

-- Bl. Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, was Roman Pontiff from 1958 to 1963.  Affectionally called the "Happy" or "Good Pope," John XXIII is best known for convening the Second Vatican Council in 1962.  He was a man of wit, good humor, passion, zeal and many surprises, similar to current Pope Francis.  In fact, he caused a stir from the start by choosing the name of John, which had been avoided for 500 years, since an antipope by that name in the 14th Century. 

A learned man of the people, who avoided attention and was known for his humility and "ordinariness," Pope John served as a stretcher-bearer during World War I and saw the harrowing effects of war firsthand.  It may have influenced his deep involvement in finding a peaceful solution to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. 

He is expected to be canonized alongside Bl. Pope John Paul II on April 27, 2014...

Friday, December 13, 2013

Making the Best of the Way Things Work Out...

Stan Van Gundy...
Legendary football coach John Wooden once said, “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”  

Of course, making the best of the way things turn out is not always easy, especially, when those things hurt the people we love.

This has been a very rough week for me.

On Monday, I got back from vacation, and, while driving to work, I received a call from my boss, who I consider a friend and, although, several years younger than me, my mentor for the past 17 years.  He asked me to meet him for some coffee at an Einstein's Bagels near the office.

Right away, I knew something was up, otherwise it could have waited until we got to work. 

Thoughts started racing through my head, knowing the stress he had endured over the past couple of years.  After 15 years of dominating the local news landscape in South Florida, a great run by any standard, management decided to change our news direction and style to adjust to an ever-evolving, faster-pace, more competitive marketplace, where TV news is giving way to the instant gratification of social media, internet and cable, and people's attention spans, lifestyles and viewing habits have adjusted accordingly. 

After ordering coffee and bagels, he cut to the chase and told me, with a knot in his throat, that he was pulling a former Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy (my words not his) and had resigned.  In fact, he was considering leaving the TV news industry altogether.   

At the risk of sounding like the "I love you man" in the old Bud Light commercial, I'll admit, my eyes watered.  He is the biggest reason I have enjoyed working in our newsroom for so long and why I never even considered pursuing other options.  I had told him that in the past but when I repeated it that morning, as my voice cracked, it came across more poignantly and we both choked up, and just as  quickly started laughing, as we looked around wondering what people at other tables were thinking about the two fat guys crying over coffee.

It was tough.  He had been with the station for twenty-three years.  That's about half his life!  Twenty-three years of missing his kids' games, activities, homework and growing up (his oldest two are now in college), holidays at work instead of with family, hurricanes and long hours spent at the office during breaking news, elections and live specials, constant stress and worrying about stories, budgets, planning, schedules and dealing with employees' egos, idiosyncrasies and personal problems (always handled with grace and a great sense of humor), and it all came crashing to a halt, a few weeks before Christmas. 

He said he wanted to tell me before making an announcement later that afternoon in the newsroom, which caught our entire staff by surprise and left many people in tears.  As one co-worker wrote in a piece of paper she handed me after the announcement, "And now what?"

To many of us, he was more than our leader.  He was our friend and part of our work family (which we often spend more time with then our real families).  If I were to best describe him, I would say he is, above all, loyal, big-hearted, fair and professional, to the point that he decided to resign but hang around for two more weeks to say goodbye to his team, despite how painful it is for him.

During this week of constant phone calls, visits from well wishers, not only on our staff but from other departments, competitors and friends from across the country, and clearing his belongings, he  took time to give us advice on some of the pressing decisions we will need to make in the upcoming weeks without him; a true class act.

If there is a takeaway from all this, which I had learned many years ago after resigning at a previous company and, despite feeling I was carrying the workload at the time, realized they were able to carry on without me (go figure!), it is that jobs may come and go but family lasts forever.  As of that point, I have tried to approach my life with that in mind (Although, please, don't ask my wife, if that's the case!).

Fortunately, for my boss, he has an amazing and loving wife, kids and extended family to support him (not to mention those of us he leaves behind at the station) and he is a man of faith, who knows God has a plan for him and will get him through this, even though it won't be easy. 

At the end of the day, things worked out for Van Gundy, who was hired by the Orlando Magic shortly after leaving the Heat, and I'm certain they will work out for my friend as well.

As I responded in the email that was sent to announce his resignation, we may never be the same without him because he leaves a huge imprint in all of our hearts as leader and, most of all, as a man, but there is no loss worth lamenting that doesn’t inevitably bring victory in the end...


Friday, December 6, 2013

Mandela; a Sign of Contradiction...

During Pope John Paul's visit to South Africa...
Each one of us, no matter how genuine and sincere we claim to be, is a sign of contradiction.

We may yell at our kids to pick up their room, but keep our own room a mess, or complain about overspending to our spouses, then frivolously spend like there's no tomorrow (You probably guessed, I'm talking from experience!).  Or, we may want to do good for others but then make any and every excuse not to do it when it's inconvenient, which reminds me of the St. Paul verse, "For I do not do the things I want to do but do the things I hate."   

In any case,  Nelson Mandela was also a sign of contradiction.

To millions worldwide, the former President of South Africa, longtime political prisoner (27 years) and leader in the fight against apartheid and racial inequality in his homeland, who died on Thursday at the age of 95, was one of the most beloved larger-than-life iconic figures in recent history and an epitome of hope, love of fellow man and humility, in the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Theresa, as I heard a radio commentator say Friday morning.

Yet, to others, like the member of my parish council, who knows I work in TV news, and cornered me after a meeting to tell me, "Can you believe the media is glorifying Mandela as a saint-like human rights hero?  The guy was notorious for rubbing elbows and supporting some of the most notorious terrorist leaders in the world," maybe, not so much!

Yes, Mandela was a man known for his grace, gentleness, good humor and faith.  After being released from prison, he forgave his captives.  He became South Africa's first black president at the age of 75, met with world leaders, including Pope John Paul II in 1995, received a Noble Peace Prize and represented the struggle for equality and peace that most people admire. 

Wherever, he appeared publicly, people rose to their feet in applause and, many times, even chanted his name.  Hollywood made movies about him, which wouldn't you know it, the latest one, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, was just released!  I'm sure the producers were saddened by the news of his death but, at the same time, went chi-chin! (Another contradiction!)  

Good friends...
But, some, including thousands of exiled Cubans in Miami (which may not be a big deal to others but, as a Cuban, it is to me!), will never forget his public support of Fidel Castro, who among his many atrocities against his own people and the world, imprisoned a little known figure named Mario Chanes de Armas for 30 years (three years longer than Mandela was imprisoned), who was kept in deplorable conditions after turning on the regime for violating their democratic promises, or his embracing of Yasser Arafat, the then leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which hijacked planes, massacred the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich and children on a school bus and committed several other bombings and savage killings of innocent civilians, and Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator known for harboring and assisting international terrorists.

Not to mention, his 2003 denouncement of President George W. Bush as a warmonger and allegation that the U.S. "committed unspeakable atrocities in the world."  (Which I'm sure endeared him to many more people around the globe!)

In other words, as someone near and dear to me poignantly pointed out when the news on his death was reported on TV, "He was a communist!" which may be debatable but sure captures the essence of how some people felt about him.

Sure, there will be a state funeral and world leaders will attend and praise him for all the good he did for racial equality, freedom and peace around the world.  History will inevitably remember him this way, and maybe, deservingly so, but, like all of us, he too was a man of dichotomy, which, despite all the accolades, some won't easily forget.

Mandela once said, "Death is something inevitable. When a man has done what he considers to be his duty to his people and his country, he can rest in peace."

May God rest his soul and bring peace to his family, friends and homeland...

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Who do Atheists Thank on Thanksgiving?...

Nice setting for Thanksgiving...
In 1863, at the height of the most divisive and devastating period in American history, where brother fought brother and our country was being torn apart, amidst bloodshed, suffering, grief and despair, President Abraham Lincoln declared a national day of thanksgiving to pause and give thanks for all the blessings God bestows on us each day.

We have been celebrating this day of "Thanksgiving" on the fourth Thursday of November ever since.

As we prepare for yet another Thanksgiving Day, a holiday tradition, which to me, is synonymous with the four f's; faith, family, food and football? (although my wife would contest the latter!), I couldn't help but think, in my own warped mind, about Atheists. 

Do they thank nature for their life, health, happiness and living in a country founded on the belief that we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights?  Or do they thank the randomness of cells and chromosomes that gave them the ability to thank, in the first place, or even think, for that matter?

I came across an article on the subject recently on an Atheist website, where the writer claimed that Thanksgiving was not at all about thanking God.  Instead, he said, it was a secular tradition meant for thanking people, farmers, soldiers, science, modern medicine, etc.

I agree that we should thank those we love and people who do things for us that we couldn't do ourselves, but, as former Atheist and Oxford scholar, who became among the greatest Christian authors of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, would have pointed out, this begins with a premise; an innate moral responsibility to show appreciation for the "good" others do for us, as if there is a standard for "goodness," which of course, Christians know there is since it is written in our hearts by God but, flies in the face of an Atheist, Naturalist or Materialist (which are interchangeable) worldview.

In other words, if we are just accidents of nature, material beings who developed over millions of years from a primordial soup and will live purposeless lives, only to die and rot in the ground, then where does good and evil, right and wrong, or even an inclination towards showing appreciation towards others fit in? 

Does it come from trying to serve the common good?  But, then again, who determines that common good?  Would it be the powerful, like when Hitler began euthanizing handicapped babies in Germany for the common good, since might makes right under a naturalist perspective?  (Think "survival of the fittest," as Charles Darwin would say!)

Or, would it come from reason?  But, then what role does reason really play in a materialistic universe, considering reason is neither material or substance and thus, what would propel anyone to abide by it in the first place?  

Ultimately, then, as even the father of modern Atheism, Friedrich Nietzsche, who was the first to proclaim, "God is dead," concluded, under an Atheist worldview, any standard for morality would be arbitrary, since as Dostoevsky once wrote, "If God doesn't exist, everything is permissible."

Now, that's not to say that all Atheists are immoral anymore than to say that all Christians are moral.  It is just that under a naturalistic worldview, where there is no transcendent objective and absolute truth, who theists call God, the standards for morality would have to boil down to individual preferences.

The reason I thought about Atheists and Thanksgiving, is that, last weekend, I met and befriended a man of apparently strong moral character and integrity, who proudly asserts, without reservations (well, maybe just a little, after a bit of coaxing and discussion), his disbelief in God.

This wasn't just a garden variety agnostic, who isn't sure whether God exists and really doesn't care (which actually may be further away from God than an Atheist), that you run into from time to time.  This was a bona fide non-believer!  I read a lot about Atheists, more to learn how to protect my kids from it than anything else, but this was the first time I actually met one!

Therefore, as I sit there at the dinner table with my family and friends to express gratitude to the Almighty God for all my blessings He gives me, such as faith, which obviously not everybody has, my wife and children, extended family and friends, our health, provisions and the good times and bad, as Lincoln called us to do 150 years ago, I will no doubt think about my newfound friend.

Who will he thank, as he sits around the table with his friends and family on Thanksgiving Day?...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Words of Wisdom from John Henry Newman...

"I am created to do or to be something for which no one else is created:  I have a place in God's counsels, in God's world, which no one else has.  Whether I be rich or poor, despised or esteemed by man, God knows me and calls me by my name."

Bl. John Henry Cardinal Newman, 19th Century bishop, theologian, author and Oxford scholar, who is  renown as one of the most influential Christian writers in history and his literary works are still impacting Christians today.  Cardinal Newman was so highly esteemed and respected that when he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, after setting out to prove the Anglican Church was the one founded by Christ, that about a hundred Anglican bishops followed him into the Church.

Bl. John Henry Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to England in 2010.  His canonization as saint is dependent on the confirmation of a second miracle attributed to his intercession....

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Papal Relic and a Debate on Idol Worshiping...

An outpouring of faith...
This week, as the Official Relic of the Postulation of Bl. Pope John Paul II, which is a vial of his blood taken days before his death, arrived in South Florida, and the news department I work for decided to do special coverage to get us out into the community we serve, I had an interesting conversation with a Protestant friend of mine about faith and the Church.

As most of us know, one of the "unwritten rules" of our times is to never discuss religion or politics in public because it often sparks inner passions that may degenerate into conflict (I know this from personal experience!).

In fact, we have been so deeply programmed in our "politically correct" culture, where many people walk on egg-shells to avoid crossing the line into what other people believe, that often, especially in mixed company, we may be more willing to discuss trivial things such as a ball game, the weather, the latest trend, a TV show or favorite wine then things that really matter in life like God, faith, philosophy and public policy.

In the process, we've unfortunately become a culture of superficiality and ignorance towards religion (if not outright rejection of it, even among some Christians!), where truth is distorted and relegated to individual preferences.  In other words, we mold God into what we believe instead of molding ourselves into what God wants us to believe.

With that in mind, as I drove with a co-worker to and from the parish, where the papal relic was going to be taken, for a meeting with the pastor, I struck up a conversation about marriage and the culture, knowing well that he was a fellow Christian.

After about an hour into our discussion about marriage, family, faith and the perils of today's society on maintaining all of them, he told me that his mother attended a Catholic church in another part of town but that he and his four siblings had left the Church for a small Bible church many years ago. 

Having heard and read dozens of conversion stories over the years (My favorite TV Show is EWTN's Journey Home), I know that one of the hardest things for parents to deal with is watching their children leave the church of their upbringing.  As you can imagine, even the most nominal believers feel a sense of loss, if not straight-out betrayal.

I attempted to navigate gingerly and asked him what his leaving the Church did to his parents.  He admitted, as I thought, that it was very difficult on them, even for his dad, who was not particularly a church-going man for most of his life.  It actually took his kids leaving the Catholic Church for him to start going to Mass, as it often happens with these types of challenges and adversities within families.  Yet, over the years, he said, his parents had learned to accept and understand that he had not joined a "cult" and that his church had made him a better man, husband and son.

As we approached the station, on our return trip, I said a little internal prayer to the Holy Spirit, took a gulp and mustered the courage to ask him point blank, "So, why did you leave the Catholic Church?"

If our conversation had been sleepily moving along until then, it was as if the Florida A & M University marching band (before the hazing ban) woke him out of a slumber.  That's when he really opened up!  Maybe, it was his cue to "share the Gospel" and, although respectful, proceeded to try to make me realize the waywardness of my faith. 

He started by saying that the more he read the Bible, and the more he studied the faith, he came to the realization that God doesn't want us to worship idols and statues (or relics for that matter!).  It's a common misunderstanding among Protestants, since Catholics don't worship idols or statues, but honor the men and women who the images represent, since they serve as our role models for living righteous and holy lives and are now more alive then ever, since they are in God's Glory in heaven.

In any case, he talked about the Holy Spirit guiding him and instructing him in his faith journey over the past thirteen years and that he found many unbiblical inconsistencies with the Church, such as purgatory, the Catechism, the role of works in salvation, etc. (And, he was just getting started!)

As I stated, having heard and read many conversion stories in the past, I knew where he was coming from and had heard every argument he was making against the Church.

So, I asked him how he knew the Holy Spirit was guiding him to the truth, since there are so many other Christians (about 30 thousand different denominations, for that matter), who swear by the same Bible and understand things very differently, which was how I led into explaining how Christ left the Church, which He founded upon Peter and promised to guide to "all truth," as the official keeper and interpreter of the deposit of faith, including the Bible, considering it was the Church, through the authority given to Her by Christ, that decide which books to include in the Bible in the late 4th Century.

He admitted the Church had kept and maintained the writings of the Apostles but that we added seven books that were not part of the original scripture to back up some of the teachings of the Church (a point of contention in the debate since the books were part of the Canonized Bible for almost 1100 years before Martin Luther decided to remove them!).

In any event, we started getting very involved in our discussion and carried it into his office, where we spent about another hour (if not more) debating various issues of the faith. 
There are two ways this could have ended, either in an all-out argument of tit-for-tat Bible verses, which we did a little of, or we could take the high road as Christian men that we both are and kept it respectful without loosing our patience. 

I can proudly say that we both took the latter, and while we had an animated exchange, among other things, about Apostolic Tradition, sola scriptura, sola fide, salvation outside the Church, the role of works and faith, the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John, and the the veneration of saints (despite the priest having possibly misspoken when he talked to us that morning, since my friend swears, he said the faithful would come up and "adore" Pope John Paul's Relic!); you know, many of the things that theologians, philosophers and greater minds then ours have grappled over since the Protestant Reformation over 500 years ago, we approached our contentions from the outset of love and respect.

Let's be honest, if there is one thing I have learned through the years is that I'm never going to be able to convince anyone about the truth of the Catholic Church, without God's intervention, anymore than he was going to convince me.

However, I don't see it as an exercise in futility since St. Peter tells us that we should, "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence." (1 Pet 3:15)  

Knowing our faith well and being able to explain it is what all Christians are called to do.  As long as we do it for God's Glory and not to win an argument, which I admit can be tricky at first, we shouldn't shy away from discussing religion, even if we come from different perspectives, because we may offend someone.  In fact, if we truly believe what we believe, as most people of faith do, then we are obliged to share it.

At the end of the day, I know my co-worker is a good man, who lives his faith according to his understanding and his small Bible church has no-doubt made him, as he said, a better man, husband and son.  But, as I could tell by our discussion, his understanding of the Church was limited when he left and probably has been negatively influenced since.  I think it's only natural, since he has to justify, at least his own mind, why he "protested " in the first place.

We are all brothers and sisters in Christ but, we are called to be One as Jesus repeatedly prayed to the Father for His Disciples to be, and since He founded just One Church upon the Apostles and gave them the authority to bind and loose on earth what would be bound and loosed in heaven, it is incumbent for all Christians to be humble, dig a little deeper and, at least, explore (or re-explore) the flock that Jesus instructed Peter to tend and feed.

The Church is the Body and Bride of Christ, according to Sacred Scripture, and while there is truth in all Christian denominations, the "fullness of Truth" can only be found in His Church; the "pillar and foundation of truth," as St. Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy.

As far for our news coverage, it turned out excellent.  We had an anchor and a reporter live from in front of the Immaculate Conception Church in Hialeah, as over thirteen hundred parishioners from all walks of life filled the one thousand-seat sanctuary and spilled outside.  They partook in the Holy Mass, prayed and venerated (not adored!) the relic...

Friday, November 1, 2013

Prayers and Conversations with My Children...

Good habits last a lifetime...
Although I don't always think so, because I want to get back to a TV show or ball game as soon as possible, one of the highlights of my day is praying with my children.

Every night, before our three kids go to bed, I blessed them with holy water and lead them in the "Now I lay me down to sleep" prayer and a Hail Mary.  You can say it's my one-on-three time, as I often tell friends. 

But, lately my 6-year-old son has added a new twist to our nightly routine.  As I'm doing the sign of the cross to wrap up and call it a night, he says to me, "Daddy, I want to talk to God," which means he wants me to pray so that he can repeat what I say. 

After doing it for a while, I use it as my Duck Dynasty concluding scene moment, where I think about all the things that we should be grateful for and the things that may have happened to them, friends or family that day, as he parrots my every word, except when he can't understand a big one! (Which prompts me to use a simpler term)

One night this week, my third grade daughter, who apparently is learning about the Four Marks of the Church, asked me whether I knew what they were shortly before I put them to bed (I guess she was trying to stump me!).

So, I decided to use my Duck Dynasty moment to thank God for giving us the Blessed Mother, the Communion of Saints, the Eucharist and the Church, which allowed me to elaborate on why the Catholic Church is said to be One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic (the four marks she was asking about).

Not to get too fancy or philosophical on them, I told them the Church is One because Jesus built just one, His Church, upon Peter the Rock.  She is Holy because the Lord promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Apostles to all truth and gave them the authority to bind and lose on earth what would be bound and loosed in heaven.  She is Catholic because the word means universal and is spread throughout the world, as Christ commanded the Apostles to "make disciples of all nations."  And, she is Apostolic because her roots can be traced back to the Apostles themselves. 

When we finished praying, my third grader asked, "Daddy, why do you call the Church a she and her?"

My 9-year-old daughter is very observant and likes to ask provoking questions, like the time she asked me why we pray to Mary, not because of any objection (since she is still to young to question what we teach her) but because of sincere childlike curiosity about our faith.  Last year, as she prepared for her First Holy Communion, her teacher often raved to me about her spirituality and profound understanding of the faith (for her age).

"Well," I answered, "Because Jesus is the Bridegroom and we, the Church, are His Bride.  We are united to Jesus through the Eucharist.  As a husband and a wife become one in marriage, we become One with Jesus when we receive the Eucharist.  And, since God is three persons, and where One is All are, then in the Eucharist are also contained the Father and Holy Spirit.  And, since the Church is the Body of Christ, as St. Paul says in the Bible, and you can't separate the head from the body, in the Eucharist we are united to the entire Church; the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, those in heaven, those in purgatory and all of us here on earth, who partake in the Eucharist."  Say what?   

Exactly!  I paused a moment and noticed a dead silence.

Either all three had fallen asleep, which I doubted, or their little brains were spinning frantically.  I could have broken into the old Simon and Garfunkel song, "Hello darkness, my old friend.  I've come to talk to you again..."  I could have sworn I heard crickets chirping outside.

I decided to leave it at that and got up from my son's bed, where I was lying, and gave him a kiss.  "I love you, Daddy," he offered with a hug and a kiss, as I got up. 

"I love you too, Buddy," I said, then got up, walked out of their room and closed the door behind me.

There is a fine line between trying to explain our faith to young minds and talking over their heads, as my wife often warns me. 

But, the way I figure it, as the Catholic Church teaches, the greatest responsibility I have as a husband and father is helping my family get to heaven.  Therefore, I think it's better to show them my fervor and passion for my faith, even if they don't quite understand yet, so that, as they get older and are  more ready to digest what I have passed on to them, they can appreciate and be inspired, if not by my words, at least, by my ardency.   

Besides, I also learned something very valuable that night.  The next time I want them to pipe down after a raucous day, I'll just try to explain the Holy Trinity!

St. Augustine once said, "Seek not to understand that you may believe but believe that you may understand."  Hopefully with belief, and God's grace, my children will one day understand, despite their dad's elaborate and silence-inducing explanations!

Seek not to understand that you may believe, but believe that you may understand.
What do you think, was it too much?...

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Giants Amukamara: Chaste and Sober...

Having his priorities straight...  
After winning their first game, following an 0 and six start, the New York Giants are probably feeling more like David than Goliath these days, just two years removed from a Super Bowl Championship.

Yet, if, as the saying goes, "Hope springs eternal," even as Autumn turns to Winter, at least in the hearts and minds of some of the Giants' players and coaches, and since the rest of the NFC Eastern Division is not exactly setting the world on fire, then it is especially the case for players like third-year cornerback Prince Amukamara, who have more than just the hope of optimistic fervor to play for but for one of eternal consequence.   

Amukamara is a devout Catholic who unabashedly lives his faith in the public arena.

In fact, the 24-year-old, who was on the Giants' last Super Bowl Championship team as a rookie, gained some national attention recently after admitting in a Muscle and Fitness Magazine article that he is proudly abstaining from sex until marriage and has never had a drink of alcohol in his life.

He said, “I grew up Catholic, so it just started out as one of those things. I’d think, ‘If I do this, maybe I can get to heaven,’ so I said no drinks, no sex, all the big things. As I grew up, I realized that’s not what it’s about. It’s about having a relationship with Jesus. It’s not about ‘Don’t do this. Don’t do that.’ But still, it’s just one of those things I haven’t done, and I don’t see any benefit to doing it.”

Amukamara and fiancée Pilar Davis...
The former first-round draft pick and All-American from the University of Nebraska, who is engaged to be married next February, proudly wears his faith on his sleeve and is often seen praying on one knee with his helmet by his side on the field, ala Tim Tebow, which is why some have referred to him as "The Black Tim Tebow."  It's a moniker, the defensive standout has no qualms in embracing.

“Yeah, some people call me the black Tim Tebow.  I am a virgin. I’m not ashamed to say that.”

That is a bold statement in a culture overly exposed and consumed by sexuality, where the vision of masculinity has been reduced to The Hangover levels, and physical pleasures, self-gratification and indulgence have become societal standards, not to mention, often confused with love and happiness.  It is refreshing to see a young man, at his peek professionally, physically and financially, opt for modesty, self-restraint and an earnest search for true love and happiness, which will never be attained through the material.

Let's face it, an NFL players life is not exactly the most conducive to wholesomeness. 

In the First Letter to Timothy, St. Paul writes, "the love of money is the root of all evils," which is a very provoking statement considering the multi-million dollar contracts most first-round draft choices receive, the temptations and distractions professional football players are exposed to on a regular basis, and the narcissistic environment the glamour and attention bring.  It's no wonder why so many players get caught up in destructive behavior (Just see NY Jets' Antonio Cromartie, who has 10 kids with 8 different women!).  But, there are still many good and righteous players as well.

A man of faith...
Another Giants cornerback, Jayron Hosley told the NY Post, "There's more guys out there like that than you think.  Negative publicity seems to get the headlines, but there's a lot of good guys out here doing a lot of great things."

Fortunately for Amukamara and Giants teammates, they have a Head Coach in Tom Coughlin, a devout Catholic Christian himself, who helps keeps them on the straight and narrow on and off the field.

Yet, despite his healthy and straitlaced lifestyle, Amukamara still enjoys going out dancing with his teammates but he just doesn't drink and he tells women he works in construction to avoid any unwarranted interest.  Then again, he did meet his wife on one of those nights out with the boys two years ago and they have been dating ever since.
In any case, although it still a long shot, and being a Redskins fan, who are in the same division, I am optimistic hopeful that it is, maybe, despite their rough start, the Giants can be like the young David in the Old Testament, shockingly slay the Philistine giant Goliath (in Dallas, Philadelphia or Washington) and sneak into the NFC playoffs.  Of course, as with the diminutive champion of Israel, that would require a divine intervention...

Friday, October 18, 2013

Movie Gravity, David Bowie and God...

In one of my all-time favorite songs (which is not saying much according to my 12-year-old daughter, who says every other "old" song is one of my favorites!), David Bowie’s Space Oddity, an astronaut named Major Tom is blasted into space on a wing and a prayer, sort of speak, with only some protein pills, a helmet and a “May God’s love be with you” farewell and soon finds himself “floating in a most peculiar way,” telling ground control to tell his wife he loves her and drifting into the abyss, as he realizes his precarious circumstances and admits, “And there’s nothing I can do.”

While the 1969 classic song can also be interpreted as a junkie disconnecting from the world on a drug induced coma (but let’s not go there!), the lyrics could have well inspired co-writer, producer and director Alfonso Cuaron, in the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

The film, which has already surpassed $132 million at the box office after just two weeks in U.S. theatres, is about a veteran astronaut (Clooney) and a scientist turned novice astronaut (Bullock), who go on a space mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and get hit by debris from a Russian missile strike. The mishap prompts a chain reaction that leads to chaos, an aborted mission and the drift into the abyss, ala Major Tom.

But, beyond all the amazing Hollywood special effects, nationally known theologian and evangelist, Fr. Robert Barron, of Catholicism fame, says there is much more.

In his latest video commentary, Barron says there is an underline message of love, hope and faith amidst despair.  In other words, whether intentionally or not, the movie points to the existence and need of a transcendent God...

Monday, October 14, 2013

It's Just a Flesh Wound...

None shall pass here...
Or so said the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, after getting his arms cut off and blood was squirting everywhere, and that could well have been my motto a couple of weeks ago during morning Mass, as I sat there bleeding uncontrollably, next to the altar, after cutting myself shaving!

But, this wasn't your average garden variety flesh wound, as I am used to (I am what you may call the Edward Scissor hands of shaving!), it wouldn't stop bleeding!

It all started on another whirlwind morning at the Espinosas; the girls dragging their feet, my wife running around making breakfast, getting herself ready and counting down the minutes like the announcer at the Miami Heat games, "Two minutes!  Twoooo minutes!," and me dressing my son as he slept and trying to get out of the way so as to not get hit by the incoming shrapnel.

After all the chaos, breakfast, teeth and hair brushing, I practically had to push them out the door, so I could get ready in time for Mass, since I have been serving as the lector every Friday for the past several weeks.     

However, that particular day, I was running later than usual, which is not saying much, considering I have about 15 minutes to take a shower, shave and finish getting ready in time to make it to the church on time, as David Bowie would say (I'm supposed to be there 15 minutes before the liturgy), so, in my haste, I cut a small gash below my lower lip while shaving.

The solution?  The time tested go-to remedy for most men; a small piece of toilet paper!  However, it was really gushing out and it took several pieces before it finally clotted up.

I continued my mad scurry and as I finished, I noticed the embarrassing dried red spot near my chin (an omen of things to come!) and, unfortunately, pealed it off carelessly.  That's when the flood gates opened up!

Realizing time was against me, I grabbed a sheet of toilet paper, patted the cut, threw on my jacket, picked up my brief case and ran out the door.  I was hoping it would dry on my way to the parish.

But, as I drove, I soon realized, it was not going to be easy.  I kept dabbing it, in fear that the blood was going to drip on my shirt but, every time I patted it dry, it would well up again in a matter of seconds.  And, if I didn't dab it for a little while, in hopes that it would coagulate, it started running down my chin.

When I came to a stop at a red light, already feeling the anxiety of being late and having to read at Mass, which I am still getting used to, and, to top it off, the concern about blood dripping on my shirt, I tried to apply pressure on the cut and held it tight for a little while.  But instead of stopping the bleeding, I think it got worse.

I guess it was like the Lamaze classes my wife and I took before our first daughter was born.  When I tried to put it into practice during labor, my wife just looked at me, as if to say, "You have got to be kidding!" and that was the end of our Lamaze experience.  I had about as much success applying pressure on my cut that morning.

In any case, by then, the sheet of toilet paper I was using was totally soaked.  There wasn't a single white spot anywhere on the sheet.

I parked my car with only five minutes left before the start of the Mass.  I rushed into the church, dipping my finger in Holy Water and doing the sign of the cross, as I hurried up the side aisle, pausing briefly to bow before the tabernacle and continuing into the sacristy.  Everyone was ready and were just waiting to begin.  I didn't even get much of a chance to read the scriptures before having to walk in with the procession around the altar and unto my seat next to the pulpit.   

It just so happened to be the Feast of St. Francis, meaning the reading I had practiced at home before the frenzy was changed!

I was sweating.  My adrenaline was pumping.  And, I felt my heart pumping out of my chest.  I started praying to try to settle down and get focused, and in all honesty, started feeling a bit faint.  To make things worse, I was still bleeding! 

So, there I was.  The priest greeted the congregation, led us in the opening prayer and then sat down, as did the rest of the faithful to listen to the First Reading (me!).  I was up.

As I stepped up to the ambo, I still felt the blood running down my chin, and with a small piece of paper towel I got in the sacristy, I kept patting it.  I paused briefly to adjust the microphone, dabbed the bleeding once more and began to read.

As I read, I was afraid I was going to drip on the lectionary and kept patting the wound with my left hand every so often, as I tried to stay focus and sound as eloquent and passionate as possible, despite the distraction.  A friend later admitted she was wondering whether I was slobbering!  Nice. 

I held my own during the First Reading but the Responsorial Psalm was longer than usual.  It just kept going and going.  I thought it was never going to end!  Somewhere towards the end, between the unfamiliarity of the text, my concern with bleeding on the lectionary, and my adrenaline and faintness, I thought I was going to collapse. 

I thought, "Great!  We were in for a treat; a public bludgeoning like the early Christian martyrs!" (Not that I'm comparing myself to a martyr but you get my drift!) 

Fortunately, I was able to regain my composure and finish before leading the congregation in the Alleluia, and stepping aside for the Gospel.  Whew!  It could have gotten ugly! 

Although I continued bleeding during the rest of the Mass, at least, I was not the center of attention any more and was able to bleed in obscurity.

On a positive note, I was scheduled to have blood work done that morning, so I figured instead of sticking me with a needle, I was going to suggest they draw the blood from lower lip!

I really should revisit that electric shaver I bought several years ago...

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Words of Wisdom from Pope Benedict...


"The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort.  You were made for greatness."

-- Pope Benedict XVI, considered by many as the greatest theologian of our time and among the greatest theologians in Catholic Church history.  Served as Roman Pontiff from 2005 to 2013, when he surprised the world by announcing his retirement as successor of St. Peter due to health reasons.  As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Bl. Pope John Paul II from 1981 to 2005.  A prolific author of over 60 books, three Encyclicals and three Apostolic Exhortations, he is currently living a life of prayer and meditation in the Vatican grounds, as the Pope Emeritus...

Friday, September 27, 2013

More Catholic Than the Pope?...

Shaking things up?...
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," begins the Charles Dickens' classic, A Tale of Two Cities, and that may be the way many Catholic faithful are feeling during the past several weeks, as they try to asses recent media reports, suggesting Pope Francis is softening the Church's moral stance on marriage, divorce, sexuality and abortion.

In case you missed it, during an extensive three-meeting interview and consequent ten thousand word essay by Fr. Antonio Spadaro in La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, on Pope Francis the man, the Pontiff was quoted as saying, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives methods.  This is not possible.  I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that.  But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context.  The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time."

Then, he added, "We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards."

The press had a field day, "liberal" Catholics, as if there is such a thing, since you're either Catholic and believe in the tenets of the Church or you're not, thought they saw and heard the heavens part and the choir of angels sing, anti-Catholic and secularist groups went into the "Gangnam Style" dance and many devout Roman Catholics, Christians, pro-life and traditional marriage advocates were left scratching their heads.  In fact, some even reacted with harsh criticism, as if to be more Catholic than the pope!

Even among my own men's group at our parish, there were mixed reactions, as an article circulated on whether Francis was our first Episcopalian Pope!  Fr. Alberto Cutie, the former Catholic celebrity priest who was caught making out with his girlfriend on the beach, renounced the priesthood, only to become an Episcopalian, write a book and get a TV talk show deal, must have a huge grin on his face!

However, despite an obvious overzealous attempt by some members of the mainstream media to pit Pope Francis against his predecessor and the Church, and draw a wedge between so called "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics, as if faith was politics, and the celebrations in certain sectors, such as the Nancy Pelosi Catholic Fan Club, I wouldn't start sending out invitations to a "gay wedding," pulling the plug on any anti-abortion rallies or refilling prescriptions to artificial birth control drugs as of yet. 

Nothing the Holy Father said in the interview, or in recent weeks, where he talked about not being the judge of homosexuals who are trying to live their faith, contradicts the Church's teachings in any way.  Although, as well known theologian, Fr. Robert Barron pointed out this week, during a press conference with Cardinal Timothy Dolan outside of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City, this may be a "new pastoral strategy."  (see You Tube video)

While, Pope Francis appears to be less measured in what he says than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who had the experience of serving under Bl. Pope John Paul II in the Church's hierarchy before becoming pope, ever was, which is endearingly refreshing to millions but concerning to some Catholic apologists, who are having to explain what he meant to say to non-believers and critics, this is precisely what it seems to be; a new approach.

In the same interview, the Holy Father says, "I see the church as a field hospital after battle.  It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars!  You have to heal his wounds.  Then we can talk about everything else.  Heal the wounds, heal the wounds... And you have to start from the ground up."

He goes on to say, "This is also the great benefit of confession as a sacrament:  evaluating case by case and discerning what is the best thing to do for a person who seeks God and grace.  The confessional is not a torture chamber, but the place in which the Lord's mercy motivates us to do better."

To me, that is at the crux of what the Pope is preaching.  He is reminding us of Jesus Christ's love for the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the sinners, which Francis humbly admits to be the best description of himself, "A sinner."  Jesus showed them compassion, drew them in with love and they believed and converted.  Unfortunately, that seems to be a message that some of us, including myself, have forgotten from time to time in our zeal to be loyal to the faith.
So, it is not a revolution in the classic sense, as in Tale of Two Cities, since it is more about focus than substance.  But, it is, as NY Daily News, Michael Coren, points out, about reshaping the Church's conversation with the world and saying yes before it says no.

Although, let's be clear, this was only a newspaper interview on personal perspective and does not reflect any authoritative pronouncement.

Notwithstanding, Francis did make a point to emphasize that he is a son of the Church and, as its Supreme Shepherd, he would never lead God's flock astray.  Nevertheless, he is calling the Church, as the Body of Christ, from the laity all the way up to the Bishops and Cardinals, to rethink the way the faith is lived and proclaimed, and in the Lord's spirit of love, mercy and compassion, to go after those that do...

Words of Wisdom from St. Thomas Aquinas...


"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary.  To one without faith, no explanation is possible."

-- St. Thomas Aquinas, 13th Century Dominican priest, monk, philosopher, theologian, university professor and Doctor of the Church.  St. Thomas is considered by many one of the greatest scholars in Catholic Church history.  He was an ardent seeker of truth and the foremost proponent of natural theology, which conforms faith and reason.  He was so influential that, eight centuries after his death, his writings and contributions, known as "Thomism," are still studied in seminaries across the world today.  He is best known for his Summa Theologiae, which is an comprehensive and systematic explanation of Catholic theology, that he never finished.  He died in his late 40's in 1274.


Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Here's to the Life We Live Today...

While commenting on my last post about the frailty of life, a friend wrote me that she recently decided to open a bottle of expensive wine that they were saving for a special occasion with her husband, after hearing that a mutual friend suffered a stroke and nearly died.

She said to her husband, "Today, is as special as any," and they enjoyed a few glasses together and then finished the bottle with another couple the next day.

I answered her, "We always think about saving an expensive bottle of wine for a great occasion but, as you alluded to, every breath we take is a great occasion!"

So, uncork that bottle you've been saving and pour yourself a tall glass because life is short and we never know if tomorrow will ever come...

[pic credit: Getty Images]

Monday, September 23, 2013

A Chase, a Crash and the Brevity of Life...

As I walked into our newsroom Wednesday morning, the sense of urgency was palpable.  Police scanners were blaring higher than normal.  Our Assignment Editor was barking instructions to a photographer to rush to a nearby hospital as quickly as possible, after an air rescue call was dispatched to a reported double shooting in SW Miami-Dade. 

I hardly had a chance to sit down and log into my computer before we heard that a vehicle fitting the description of the suspect's SUV was spotted not far from the shooting scene and, as police tried to approach it, the driver took off.  A chase ensued.  I remember looking at my co-worker and knowing and feeling the truth of what he was about to say, "This isn't going to end well."    

The black SUV Mercedes raced up Krome Avenue, a two-lane road at the far west edge of the county.  The road borders the Florida Everglades and, because of its remoteness, has been plagued with fatal accidents over the years. 

We started sending crews in the direction of the chase, not knowing where it would end but wanting to be as close as possible whenever it did.  Soon media helicopters were hovering over the scene and broadcasting live images of the chase on TV. 

The fleeing driver got off Krome Avenue on Okeechobee Road, nearly losing control as he maneuvered around the exit ramp and continued heading northwest into Broward County.  We re-routed a couple of more crews, who were already in the northern county, towards the chase.

Despite the tension, whirlwind of activity and frenzy around me, as everyone in the newsroom was mobilized, I was mesmerized watching the speeding SUV, which was traveling at speeds reported to be upwards of 100-miles-per-hour.  The suspect, Antonio Feliu, was driving erratically, flying by cars on the road and weaving in and out of traffic.  At one point, he went into the grassy median and plowed over a traffic sign to avoid other cars and then, out of nowhere, another black Mercedes came into its path.

It was a violent and horrifying crash that sent debris, mangled car parts, glass and smoke flying everywhere, as the two vehicles spun out of control and finally stopped in the median.

All I could muster to say was, "Oh, my goodness.  No!"  I was stunned.  It was as if time briefly stood still.  I felt as if the air had been sucked out of me, knowing well that there was no way the other motorist, who was broadsided on the driver's side, could have survived. 

And, just like that, in a split second, with no time to react and possibly without ever even seeing the charging vehicle heading towards her, the life of a woman came to a shocking and unexpected end.  An innocent driver was killed, being flung from her car in the cataclysmic collision.     

I must say that aside from watching the second plane hit the World Trade Center and the two towers collapse shortly afterwards in 2001, it was probably one of the ugliest images I have ever seen on live TV in my 25 years in the news industry.

Moreover, the abrupt manner the victim's life was quashed was unsettling.  Because, let's face it, as brutal as the death of Vivian Gallego, 51, and her daughter Anabel Benitez, 27, the victims shot in the original scene, were; at least they knew their killer.  There was a history, a soured relationship and a passionate devolution that led to the crime.  Their deaths, while just as underserving and disheartening, were not as ill-fated as that of the innocent driver, Maritza Medina, who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Maritza Medina...
I think, for many of us in the newsroom, it was a poignant reminder of just how fleeting and volatile our life really is.  In fact, another co-worker posted on her Facebook later that day, "Kiss your family and tell them how much you love them every day... You never know what tomorrow may bring."

Meanwhile, Feliu took his own life shortly after the crash. 

As I reflected on the day's event on my way home from work that night, I couldn't help but think of the lyrics of the James Taylor song, Fire and Rain, about the unexpected loss of a childhood friend, where he says, "Oh, I've seen fire and I've seen rain.  I've seen sunny days that I thought would never end.  I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend.  But, I always thought that I'd see you again."

The thought of the many times I take the life of my wife and kids for granted was haunting.  Every morning, I help my wife by getting my son ready for school and everyone out the door to make it on time, sometimes without even taking a moment to kiss them goodbye or telling them how much I love them because everybody is rushing.  I confide, without much contemplation, that I will see them later in the day but is that a given?

Like she had done every other weekday, Medina had just dropped off her teenage daughter at school that morning.  The 47-year old homemaker, mother of two and wife of twenty five years, was heading home when she crossed into the intersection of Griffin and Okeechobee Roads, less then a half-mile away from her Pembroke Pines home.  She never made it.  Instead, she met her unexpected demise.

When asked if she told her mother that she loved her after being dropped off, her teary-eyed daughter said, "No.  I said 'goodbye, mom.'  You never really know when you are going to see her for the last time."

What a profound and honest answer.  You never really know.  One minute you're dropping off your daughter at school, like millions of parents across America, and the next minute a maniac plows into you and snuffs out your life in the blink of an eye.  And, with it are dashed, the many hopes and dreams of loved ones and friends, who suffer the loss.   

Medina's teenage daughter will not have her mom at her graduation next year or help her pick a prom dress, give her advice on boys, attend her college commencement ceremony or help plan her wedding one day.  Her older sister, who is already married, will never be able to seek her mom's counsel in raising her family and her children will never enjoy the blessing of growing up with their grandmother by their side.  Likewise, Medina's husband will never hold her hand again, get a chance to grow old together, celebrate anniversaries, retirement, family reunions, grandchildren or share in any of the quotidian moments and events in life that many of us, unfortunately, take for granted.  It's sad.    

Taylor puts it well in his song, "Been walking my mind to an easy time, my back turned towards the sun.  Lord knows when the cold wind blows, it'll turn your head around.  Well, there's hours of times on the telephone line to talk about things to come.  Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground."

In the end, no matter how much we worry, plan, save and attain, life can cease in an instant, as it did for Maritza Medina.  Therefore, it's not about our accomplishments, fame or fortune, it's about the legacy of memories and feelings we leave behind; especially to our family and friends, who will cherish the times and love we shared long after we are gone...

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Of Lice and Men (Women and Children!)...

First published in 1937... 
In his classic novel, Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck wrote a story about friendship, mental illness and broken dreams, which were shattered with an unexpected turn of events that spun his characters' world upside down and ended in tragedy.

I realize trying to fit my story line into this plot is a bit of a stretch but, in an effort to use the play on words in my title, I could say that, while my tale doesn't have a grievous ending, at the risk of sounding a bit melodramatic (which may not be that out of character for me!), it does include an unforeseen turn of events that also had a topsy-turvy effect on my family (if only for a couple of weeks!).

Of course, it wasn't murder.  It was just a case of head lice!

Say what?  Ah yes, I thought the same thing.  As we shockingly discovered, even in the friendly confines of suburban Coral Gables, among the tree lined streets, well kept lawns, imported cars and yuppie well groomed families, the nagging parasites can strike.  And, strike they did!

Not only did they affect my children but my wife as well!

It all started on an otherwise lovely day with a mid-morning call from my wife.  Without giving me much of a chance to talk, she quickly blurted out, "Carlos, we have to pick up Nico (our six-year-old son) at school. They called to say they found lice in his hair!"

What?  My boy?  The chip off the old block and apple of his father's eye?  How?  Where did he get them? Obviously, I immediately imagined that it had to have come from another classmate!  Where else could he have gotten them?  We keep him clean.  I bathe and wash his hair almost every night.  What other explanation could there be?

Still flabbergasted by the news, I quickly call my Dad after hanging up with my wife.  My Mom and Dad pick up the kids at school for us and watch them until my wife gets home.  After breaking the news to my Mom, I asked my Dad if he could pick up my son a little earlier since they had him in the nurse's office at school.

Well, it didn't end there.  To my chagrin, the story gets better.

Shortly, after calling my Dad, my wife calls me back saying, "Forget it.  I have to go pick them up.  They all have lice!" You gotta be kidding, right?  But of course, she wasn't.  She told me she had to go get some lice treatments at the drug store and the chances were good that we all had lice.

I was stunned.  But, moreover, my head immediately started itching.  Then I remembered my son had been sneaking into our bed in the middle of the night!

That's a lot of hair... 
I didn't know the first thing about lice but, let's face it, the word has negative connotations.  I would expect them to be more prevalent in the backwoods of the Robertson land in Louisiana on Duck Dynasty than in the classrooms of a Catholic school in Coral Gables.  I mean, not to throw stones but have you seen Si and Phil Robertson?  I love the show but you gotta admit, their scruffy beards and unkempt hair would be a louse's paradise.

I couldn't help but think about the time I was in high school, and my dog Candy (a medium size poodle that slept under my bed) was hit by a car during flea season and the vet put her leg in a sling and we couldn't take her to the groomers for several weeks.  Well, it wasn't long before she got fleas and our entire townhouse in Hialeah, which was wall-to-wall carpet inside, got infested!  It took us about a month to finally get rid of the irritating insects, which left more red welts on my body than an allergic man with food poisoning during a dust storm in Death Valley on a blistering day.

For some reason, I have always had a propensity to attract critters.  In fact, I remember one time several years ago, when our oldest daughter was still a toddler that I met my wife after work at a property she was showing with an empty field next door.  While my wife showed the house to the potential buyers, I tried to keep my daughter entertained and we walked around the neighborhood for a while and ended up in the vacant lot.

Out of nowhere, I started feeling this tingling sensation up my leg (unlike Chris Matthews during an Obama speech) near my ankle, which freaked the heck out of me.  I started slapping my pant leg and stumping my foot on the ground hoping to jar whatever had gone inside my pants lose.  After frantically beating the tar out of my leg, while my daughter played, in hopes of killing whatever was moving in my pants, I didn't feel it anymore.

My wife finished the showing and we agreed to go to a nearby pizza joint and got into our respective cars and drove away. As we approached the restaurant, the tingling sensation was back.  Now, it really startled me and I started slapping my leg like Kurt Russel (Wyatt Earp) bitch slapping Billy Bob Thornton in the saloon scene in Tombstone, while still trying to keep my other hand on the steering wheel.  Between slaps and pounding my foot on the floor, my leg started feeling numb.

It wasn't ants in my pants!...
I walked out of my car and again felt the tingling sensation.  Whatever was in there was not dead. In fact, by now, it was crawling up my leg into my inner thigh.  I walked as fast as I could into the restaurant, and as my wife and daughter sat down, I ran into the bathroom and tore my pants off.  A lizard landed on the floor, making me jump like a school girl in my underwear!  Fortunately, no one came into the bathroom at that moment.  It would have been a tough one to explain!

In any case, my wife and the kids went to a lice clinic (I didn't know they existed) in Kendall and had all the parasites removed.  It seems they are quite common in our area and, every year, my wife says there are usually a couple of kids that get them at our kids' school.  Just not our kids (until now!).

So, it was a long week of washing and drying bed sheets, pillow cases and blankets for my wife, and me being forced to wait for her to finish so we could make our bed to go to sleep late every night!  We had to put every single cloth decorative pillow, stuffed animal and such into garbage bags for two weeks, where the doctors say they die without human blood to feed on (there are piles of black garbage bags throughout our living room, bedroom and the kids' closet!). We've had to make sure no one is sharing hair brushes, wash our hair with a preventative shampoo and thoroughly clean our area rugs (I finally got the Dyson I've been wanting to get!). Nobody has been allowed to sleep on the same bed, although our son continues to sneak unto our bed in the middle of the night!  In other words, the disruption has been felt by everyone in the family.

On a positive note, unlike fleas, lice don't jump or fly, they basically spread through close contact, like sleeping in the same bed, using the same hair brush, lying on the same pillow, blanket or stuffed animal, clothing, etc. It seems my younger daughter may have been the carrier since she had the most and it was possibly from when she attended a dance competition and shared brushes with some of the other girls.

After my kids fought to treat and inspect my hair when I got home that first night, no louse was found.  Upon another inspection and treatment several days later, still no lice.  It may be because my hair is short and I wear hair gel every day, which the doctor said keeps the lice from being able to latch on.

So, while, unlike Steinback's novel, the only tragedy was to the lice and no one had to die for love, or because of it, the best laid plans of mice and men went out the door the day the lice came in and we have yet to get our lives back in sync ever since...

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Answering God's Call to the Priesthood...

Fr. Daniel Martin...
St. John Mary Vianney, known as the Cure of Ars, would often say, "The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus." While, Bl. Pope John Paul II once said, "No one can see Christ; but everyone sees the priest, and through him they wish to catch a glimpse of the Lord. Immense is the grandeur and dignity of the priest!"

I'm sure those remarks may raise some eyebrows in today's jaded and skeptical world, especially considering the stories that have captured the headlines on national news media over the past decade or so.  But, just as for every Judas, there was a Peter and a decade of other apostles, for every stray priest, there are nine or ten more who live righteous and holy lives and don't get the recognition they deserve for their humility, dedication and unwavering service and love for Christ and His Church.

Those are the priests the Catholic Church has relied on for the past two thousand years to evangelize the world and administer the sacraments that Christ handed to His apostles, and those are the priests that the Catechism calls the "means by which Christ unceasingly builds up and leads his Church" until the end of time...

At 27, Fr. Daniel Martin is the youngest priest in the Archdiocese of Miami. Freshly ordained by Archbishop Thomas Wenski, along with three others last May, the South Florida native, who was born at Jackson Memorial Hospital, raised in Coral Springs, where he attended St. Andrew's Catholic School, and graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Ft. Lauderdale, has hit the ground running at his first parish assignment at the Church of the Little Flower in Coral Gables (where I just so happen to be a parishioner!).

So, instead of focusing on his career, starting a family or just hanging out and having fun with friends, like most men his age, he is getting up before the crack of dawn to pray, celebrating daily Mass (as early as six fifteen in the morning!), anointing the sick, meeting and counseling parishioners and couples getting married, visiting hospitals, administering last rites, attending funerals and celebrating funeral Masses, going to parish ministry and school meetings and somewhere in between, preparing his daily reflections and Sunday homilies, catching up on the news (to ensure his homilies are relevant), reading, praying and more praying. And, that doesn't even include Saturdays, which are filled with morning and vigil Masses, Confessions, Baptisms and Weddings!  (And, you thought doctors were busy!)

The life of a parish priest is not one of comfort and leisure, especially at large parishes, where the demands are many and idle time few and far between, particularly as you get your grounding. It's a life of sacrifice, service, discipline and selflessness, but Fr. Martin, who once considered the Jesuit Order, like his favorite saint, St. Francis Xavier, the 16th Century missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus, whose zeal and passion for Christ helped spread Catholicism into India, where Fr. Martin's family descended from, wouldn't want it any other way.  The priesthood is the fulfillment of an internal longing that drew him to the Mass from an early age.

"I always loved the liturgy. I was an altar server almost since the time I did my First Holy Communion. I don’t think I ever missed Mass, maybe once, in my entire life because I always loved the liturgy. I also have a very philosophical mind and liked to ask questions. In the Church, I discovered many great philosophical minds, who liked to ask great questions and were able to conform faith and reason.”

That inquisitive mind and a theology teacher in high school, who challenged his faith and made him dig a little deeper, started him on a journey of discernment that eventually led him to the Sacrament of Holy Orders this year.

“I think adolescence is a time to question and that’s when you need good teachers and priests to guide young people. It’s by asking questions that faith can grow deeper and stronger. It was during that period of questioning that the deepest desire arose within me.”

The laying of hands...
It is one of the reasons he enjoys working with teens and young adults so much.  Admittedly, like most teenagers trying to discover himself and the world around him, those questions and a thirst for truth, heightened by that theology teacher, kindled within him a fire that continued to grow.

Despite knowing since high school that God was calling him to be a priest, he says his discernment was a gradual one.  So, when I asked him during an interview, shortly after his ordination, what he thought of so many teenagers straying from their faith (many times after receiving their Confirmation), he answered that he didn't believe it was necessarily such a bad thing.

"I think every person has a time in their life of challenging and questioning what has been handed to them. They have to come to their own sense of values, their own belief systems.  They need to kind of embrace what has been given to them; what has been handed to them by their parents."  He added, "Anyone who doesn't question their faith at some point in their life or doesn't go through that process is probably missing out because once you get through to the other side of that, you usually come out with a deeper faith and that is what happened to me."

In fact, as long as they have a sound faith formation at home, Fr. Martin believes that, like the lost sheep in the Bible parable, those that stray will eventually be led back home.

During our meeting, I was struck by the young priest's gentle demeanor and pastoral nature.  Fr. Martin, who says he enjoys listening to Y-100 (my daughter's favorite station!), although his musical taste ranges from classical to classic rock, depending on what station pops up on the radio when he is trying to avoid commercials, exudes a sincere desire for helping people; a virtue that will suit him well in his vocation.  When I asked him what he would be if not a priest, he was actually stumped momentarily and said it was a hard question to answer. After a brief pause and some thought, he finally answered that "maybe" he would be a politician because "politics is about trying to make the world a better place."

A scholar at heart, he enjoys reading about theology, politics, economics and social issues.  He grew up tinkering with computers, playing soccer and basketball and playing the piano, which he still toys with from time to time, and once competed in on a state level.

After high school, the novice priest attended the historic Fordham University, in New York City, where, as an honors student, he earned a Bachelor's Degree in philosophy before enrolling at (none other than) St. John Vianney College Seminary in west Miami-Dade in 2007.

He grew up in a devout Catholic family, where prayer and church were a part of the everyday life for his parents, who immigrated from India, his younger brother, John Paul, and him. In fact, he says his father played a huge role in his vocation, albeit unbeknownst to him.  After his ordination, his dad, who has two uncles who are priests in India, confessed that he had been praying for Daniel to become a priest from the day he was born!

Therefore, St. Andrew’s, where he attended Mass from the time he was two years old, was like his extended family.

“The great thing about being at my home parish is that everywhere I turned, the church was my family because one of my uncles was a sacristan (the person in charge of the sacristy), another of my grand uncles was a leader in the Spanish choir, and another was an usher. So, it was a family affair and I jokingly say that, after becoming a priest, we could basically run the church!”

Meanwhile, his brother, who is currently a member of the National Guard, was also an altar server, his father, who is a psychiatrist in the Miami-Dade prison system, served as a Eucharistic Minister, and his mother became a Catechism teacher.  Needless to say, service and parish life was in his blood.

Giving a blessing...
In fact, one of his biggest thrills so far in his short pastoral career was celebrating his first Mass after his ordination at his parish.

“It was an awesome moment because, just being there so long… We all have a sense of what the Church is and we usually think of our home parishes when we think about the Church. You don’t really think of the Vatican. You think of where you go to Mass. So, it was really cool to be there and to lead everyone in prayer.”

It was a thrill that set the tone for his ministry and he has carried the enthusiasm into his first assignment at Little Flower.

He says he wants to be a positive and inspiring influence; a true witness and mentor like his old high school teacher was for him, especially to young people.

"They need to come to the point where they feel like the ones who are teaching them the faith are actually witnessing and living the faith; that they actually ascribe to what they are teaching.  They need to really see it (the faith) in action."

It is reminiscent of a quote by Pope Paul VI, which was used in Pope Benedict's letter proclaiming the Year for Priests, “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”

That is why Fr. Martin believes that his role, as a shepherd of Christ, is to present the faith in a way that touches people and attracts instead of detracts.  In other words, he wants to live up to the words of St. John Vianney to be "the love of the heart of Jesus" and draw wayward sheep back into the fold.

"I think that many times people leave when they have encountered some sort of rash treatment.  As most people know, the second largest Christian group is former Catholics... We need to present our faith from a positive perspective.  I've heard many homilies where I agreed with everything being said but I would not be convinced by how it was being said.  I think the only way to really convince anyone is on a personal level."

Yet, despite the negative stories of doom and gloom in the ranks and files of the Catholic Church and the shortage of priestly vocations, Fr. Martin sees many signs of hope.

"Just here in the Archdiocese of Miami, we have 50 seminarians.  We have about 100 parishes.  If those seminarians become priests (and more follow at the current pace), we should be able to replenish any need in the next 10 to 20 years.  St. Vincent de Paul Seminary (in Boynton Beach, Fl.) has more seminarians then they have ever had.  So I don't think the crisis is necessarily true."

New laborers for God's vineyard...
When I interviewed Fr. Martin, he had just celebrated his first funeral Mass, after having performed his first anointing of the sick at a local hospital and was getting ready for his first Spanish homily at a wedding, after having celebrated his first Spanish Mass the previous Sunday. So, obviously, as with any new priest, there will be lots of firsts for him this year.   But, as legendary NCAA basketball coach and devout Christian, John Wooden, once said, "I'd rather have a lot of talent and little experience then have a lot of experience and little talent" and Fr. Martin certainly has the talent to be a great priest.

Going back to St. John Vianney, he also once said, "Without the Sacrament of Holy Orders, we would not have the Lord (the Eucharist). Who put him there in that tabernacle? The priest. Who welcomed your soul at the beginning of your life? The priest. Who feeds your soul and gives it strength for its journey? The priest. Who will prepare it to appear before God, bathing it one last time in the blood of Jesus Christ? The priest, always the priest. And if this soul should happen to die [as a result of sin], who will raise it up, who will restore its calm and peace? Again, the priest… Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is.”

May God bless Fr. Martin and all righteous and holy priests who have answered God's call, despite the sacrifices, in order to be, as John Paul said, the representatives of Christ on earth, so as to lead souls to heaven by sharing His love for each one of us...