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Thursday, February 28, 2013

Leaving the Church in the Hands of God...

"I am strengthened and reassured by the certainty that the Church is Christ's, who will never leave her without his guidance and care."
-- Pope Benedict XVI

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Mending a Broken Heart After Pope’s Resignation…

And, I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. Whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Mat 16:18-19)

A final farewell?...
Much debate has been generated among Christians from the passage above. What did Jesus mean when, while exulting Peter for having answered the question correctly about His identity, He then promises to build His Church upon the rock of Peter and give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven?

For the first 1500 years of Christianity, it was mostly an understood fact (although one can argue that the Orthodox Church went into schism with Rome in the 11th Century, mostly over this issue), yet since the Protestant Reformation, in the early 16th Century, it has caused much strife, division and contention between otherwise faithful and benevolent followers of Jesus Christ.

Two weeks ago, when my wife’s alarm went off and, as usual, she turned on Fox News, I was lying there in my slumber and trying desperately to catch the last few seconds of sleep before the morning routine of waking the kids, making sure they get ready, giving them breakfast and rushing out the door (mostly all done by my wife!), I hear on the TV, “This is a Fox News Alert, Pope Benedict XVI has just announced his resignation.”

Say what? I immediately pulled off my C-PAP machine and sat up in bed. I couldn’t believe my ears.

Yet, as historic as it was, in modern times it has never happened and the last time was over 600 years ago, believe it or not, as a defender of my faith, the first thing I thought was “Oh no! What happened?” My mind started racing, “Was there a scandal? Was the Pope dying? Could a pope, who, as a Catholic I believe, has been chosen through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, even renounce his God-given authority?”

For several minutes, there was a lot of confusion swirling in my mind.  I felt like I had been sucker punched, while I was sleeping!

I finally started calming down after learning that Pope Benedict was not the first Roman Pontiff to resign. At least there was a precedent; whether it was six centuries ago or not!  I also was comforted by the fact that it wasn’t because of a scandal and that he wasn't dying, any more than any soon-to-be 86-year-old, or any of us (for that matter) are dying on any given day or time.

But, then it hit me.

People of other religions, non-Catholic Christians, and even lapsed or strayed Catholics, probably can’t understand what the pope means to those of us who try to live faithfully, in accordance with the Church.

He’s not just a figurehead, the leader of a worldwide institution, celebrity or guru, he is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “the perpetual and visible source and foundation of unity both of the bishops and of the whole company of faithful.” (CCC 882) Moreover, we believe he is the direct descendant, in an unbroken line of successors, of St. Peter (see here), the Rock, who Christ built His Church upon, gave the keys to and instructed to tend and feed His sheep and lamb (John 21:15-17).

Servant of the Servants of God...
But, it's more than that; there's an even more profound reason, at least or me, of why Catholics hold him in such esteem.  He is our spiritual father in faith; hence we call him pope, from the Latin word papa.  And, as our spiritual father, I’m not ashamed to admit, I love the old man. I love his writings.  I love his holiness and gentleness, and the way he has carried out his mission as the Servant of the Servants of God with undeniable humility, dignity, respect and love for the Lord and His Church, over the past eight years. Yes, at the risk of sounding like an old Bud Light commercial, beer or no beer, I can’t help it but to say, "I love him, man."

This is a reserved and pensive theologian who wanted to retire into a life of writing, prayer and meditation many years ago, only to be told by Bl. Pope John Paul II that he needed him. As the loyal servant that he is, not only did he stay to help Pope John Paul and was beside him through his deterioration and ultimate death, but, when the College of Cardinals selected him to be the next pope, at the ripe old age of 78, he accepted the burden of filling arguably the hardest and, although greatly loved by millions around the world, also much maligned and hated positions, just because of what he and the Church stand for.  Not to mention, he was going to be filling the shoes of one of the most beloved popes in the history of the Catholic Church.

Needless to say, although, after giving it some thought, I could understand the reasons behind his decision, especially when World Youth Day in Brazil is fast approaching and he was told not to travel any more, and was sure he did not take his decision without deep reflection, soul searching and prayer, the news still broke my heart a bit.  Yes, I am man enough to say that, as my wife and kids got ready that morning, I teared up while watching the news.

Even though, he wasn't immediately dying, I couldn't help but think that I was loosing a part of my family, and the Church was loosing one of the greatest minds in its history, and that's saying a lot, considering the Church has been around for two thousand years! 

Therefore, when I got to work later that morning, I was still reeling and downcast.  Then, as if that wasn't enough grief to chew on, a friend, who happens to be a fellow Catholic, comes up to me and says, "He should never have been pope."  It was as if the dagger were getting pushed deeper.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"He was no John Paul II," she continued.

I expressed how much I loved Pope Benedict and that, while he may not have the same charisma of Blessed Pope John Paul II, he certainly has been an excellent shepherd of the flock and embodied the same holiness and love.

Pope Benedict was often misunderstood and misrepresented in the mainstream media, and thus in the culture, which everyday is becoming more secularized and, as he warned, becoming more like a dictatorship of moral relativism, where the only absolute truth is the one that each person comes up with.  

Despite being the catalyst for change in the way the Church dealt with priests that had violated their sacred vows, he was often attacked, criticized, and ridiculed.  But, then again, the pope will always be attacked because he stands in the face of the prevailing influences of the culture.

Bl. Pope John Paul II often pointed out that just as Christ was a sign of contradiction in society during his time on earth, the Church (and its leadership) will always be a sign of contradiction in the culture.  And, just as the Lord was hated for speaking the truth, the Church will always be hated, since truth never changes; it was the same in the time of Jesus, it's the same today and will be the same tomorrow.

The Flock of God...
I remember when Fr. Alberto Cutie left the Roman Catholic Church to become an Episcopalian priest, so that he could get married, an Episcopalian Bishop stood behind a podium at a press conference and, with much disdain, said, "Unlike others, we are not governed from the top down like a dictatorship.  We take the faithful into full consideration and operate from the bottom up."

Say what?  Oh sure, that may sound great on the political campaign trail but was he really suggesting that truth is determined by the masses or according to public opinion polls?  In other words, does God adjust to the whims of His creation, or does man have to adjust to God?

As far as I know, it is called the Kingdom of God for a reason.  And, all kingdoms, from the creation of time, have always been hierarchical, including God's.  You have the king, which is God, and, as Catholics, we believe we have the Prime Minister, appointed by Christ with the same authority that King David appointed Eliakim in the Book of Isaiah. 

In fact, King David says, “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open.” (Isa 22:22) Sound familiar?

In any account, regardless of where you stand on the papacy, the point is that soon there will be a new pope, the 266th in the line of successors of Peter, and while he may never be as charismatic as Bl. Pope John Paul II or be as profound and scholarly as Pope Benedict XVI, I'm sure I will learn to love our new spiritual father and shepherd with the same enthusiasm as I loved his predecessors.

As our pastor told us this week, Pope John Paul taught us how to die gracefully and with dignity.  Pope Benedict is teaching us how to live by knowing our own limitations, humbling ourselves and putting the greater good of the Church above our own needs. 

Moreover, what greater gift then celebrating the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday with the springtime of a new pope in place and the eyes of the entire world focused on the Roman Catholic Church?

Archbishop Fulton Sheen once said, "No chain is stronger than its weakest link, and the weakest link of the chain of Popes was the first. But that weak link was held in the hands of Christ. That is why the papacy will never fail."...

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Say it Ain’t So, Dan-o…

Forgive me Father for I have sinned...
During the infamous Black Sox Scandal of 1919, where eight Major League Baseball players from the Chicago White Sox, including a shoe-in Hall of Famer, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson (pun intended), were accused of conspiring to fix the World Series (despite being the favorite, they would get paid handsomely by organized gamblers if they lost) and banned from the game for life, it was reported that a boy came up to Jackson, who hit .375 in the series, and asked, “It ain’t true is it Joe?” Jackson reluctantly answered, “I’m afraid it is.”

The next day, a local newspaper is said to have run a story with the headline, “Say It Ain’t So,” which became part of baseball lore.

I was reminded of that saying last week, when the story broke that Dolphins' great, Dan Marino, who is a married (28 years) father of six children, including two adopted girls and a son with autism, which motivated him to establish the Dan Marino Foundation with his wife, and an otherwise all around “good guy” and pillar of the South Florida community, had fathered a child during an extramarital affair with a co-worker seven years ago.

Moreover, Marino admitted to having paid the woman, Donna Savattere, who was a production assistant at CBS Sports at the time, millions of dollars to help support the girl, move to Texas and keep everything quiet, which the Hall of Fame quarterback said was in the best interest of all involved.

It was the latter part that most outraged a single female co-worker of mine.  While it was the extramarital affair part that upset another co-worker who was recently married.

In any case, I must say, it was a bit disappointing to me.  Despite not being a Dolphins' fan (I actually like the Washington Redskins), as a fellow Roman Catholic, husband and father, who is trying to raise righteous and Godly children, it is disheartening to see another role model, and I'm not talking on the field but as a man, tainted by his own indiscretions.

Even my wife, who is not much of a sports fan, admitted to me that night, "I lost a lot of respect for Dan Marino."

I guess it felt like the Mighty Casey in the 19th Century poem, where fans put him on a pedestal and are certain he will win the game with his powerful bat, only to fall flat on his face and strike out, to every one's disappointment.  The author writes, "There's no more joy in Mudville, the mighty Casey has struck out!" (although, maybe I'm being a little melodramatic!)

In any case, a few weeks ago, it was Lance Armstrong, who also admitted to cheating (albeit on a sport by using steroids, although, his personal life is nothing to brag about since divorcing his wife and dating a slew of Hollywood starlets) and, unlike Marino, it took years after first being implicated, for the seven time Tour de France Champion to admit his wrongdoing.  But, it seems that every week another story hits the front page of a professional athlete or celebrity getting caught in a scandal.

Some people excuse it as a reality of life today or, as I heard one friend say when explaining his failed marriage, "Things happen."  Really?  Is that what we have come to expect from marriage?  They may even defend it, as I saw in several articles and letters to the editor in the days that followed the Marino story.

However, I think it's a sad statement on society when cheating, moral mediocrity and marital failures become the social norms; when families are being torn apart by the selfish acts of parents or when we continue lowering the moral threshold.  In fact, fallen heroes may even allow us to feel better about our own failures, which may be why the media can't get enough of them.

I'll admit, despite my disappointment, when the water cooler debate broke out at work, I was the first to say, "Hey, we are all sinners," and that all of us, at one time or another, are bound to make mistakes that we may regret later in life.  But, after reflecting on it a little, I realized, it's not an excuse or license to go out and make them.

We can never try to judge another man's (or woman's) heart.  For all we know, Marino has truly repented, reconciled with God and his family and received forgiveness.  Furthermore, considering that he appears to have taken responsibilities for his actions, restored his marriage (at least from the outside) and provided for his daughter, whose mother (Savattere) has since gotten married and had another child, it appears the wounds may be healing.

Still, I can't help but wondering, like the boy in the "Shoeless" Joe Jackson story, if it really ain't so.  Or, at least for my kids' and society's sake, if it had never been...

[pic credit: New York Daily News]

Friday, February 1, 2013

A Walk in the Park, Losing my Son and a Cardinal's Hug...

There's nothing like walking in Central Park...
One of the many joys of parenthood, at least for me, is traveling with my family. Sure, there are the laughs, the fun of experiencing new places and things (and restaurants!), and the bonding time together that everybody enjoys. But, believe it or not, I also like the fights, the whining and the crying (including my own when I don’t get to do what I want!) and the occasional tantrums, which with three young children (and a self centered dad!), no trip would be complete without. (Although, the fighting, whining, crying and tantrums would not make my list of the greatest joys in life, especially at the time they are happening)

But, most of all, I enjoy the unity and love we share, when our focus is off of ourselves and, instead, on one another (at least more than usual and not including those under six, or nine, or twelve). In fact, I think traveling helps augment and enrich the “family experience” more than the grind of everyday life, where we often get so caught up with running around to baseball and soccer practices, dance rehearsals, meetings, deadlines and chores that we lose track of what's important; like just spending quality time with each other.

We got a chance to experience the highs and lows of family travel during a recent weekend trip to New York City to celebrate my eldest daughter’s 12th birthday, which you might call a pretext, since my wife and I don’t need much prodding to want to go to the Big Apple.

In fact, when my brother lived in Manhattan for about ten years, we went up to see him several times. And, even when he moved to L.A., but, as an actor, was commuting to NY on a regular basis, we planned a couple of trips to coincide with him.  Also, when my wife celebrated a milestone birthday several years ago (I won't say which), we went up with friends and had a terrific time. 

Yet, this was the first time we take the kids, and, considering the exorbitant costs involved, we needed a good excuse this time around.

Still, regardless of the expense, the kids not being able to see snow, which they were desperately hoping for, besides a small pile around a tree in Central Park on the last day we were there, me losing my son (twice), the bitter cold weather and my younger daughter getting car sick on the cab that took us to JFK, and if you've ever been in a NYC taxi, you don't need to ask why, it was an amazing trip.

The interesting thing, as I reflected on our short getaway, or "holiday," as my wife's brother-in-law, who is British, might say, is that we all enjoyed it for different reasons. 

Somber memories for me...
Don't get the wrong impression, while we all enjoyed spending time together, going to Broadway to watch Mary Poppins (which, by the way, was outstanding), seeing Rockefeller Center, riding the subway system, visiting the September 11th Memorial and the Museum of Natural History (both a first for us), seeing the Statue of Liberty (from the mainland) and hitting our favorite eateries (Balthazar, Mercer Kitchen and Union Square Coffee Shop among them), for my wife, probably the best part of the trip was going for a couple of morning runs in Central Park, and then stopping at Starbucks for some coffee, like a true New Yorker, on the way back to our hotel.

For the birthday girl, it was all about shopping in Soho (All of a sudden, she's a shopper!) and going to the Magnolia Bakery for some cupcakes. For my 8-year-old, the highlight by far was going to the American Girl Doll store and purchasing Saige (with her own money!). For my son, it was all about going to Toys-R-Us in Times Square, which is where I lost him for the first time.

I imagine that now is a good time for an explanation.  He was tailing behind me and I kept looking back over my shoulder and telling him to hurry up and then, all of a sudden, I looked back and he wasn't there. I rushed to where he was and he was nowhere in sight.  My heart sank, as I quickly thought about the enormity of trying to find a lost little boy, who is in a strange city, in a store packed to the rafters with shoppers from around the world.

It was one of those moments, where everything goes into slow motion except your heart, which wants to beat out of your chest.  As people say, time indeed stands still. I was truly scared and immediately started praying for God to help me find him.

As my anxiety escalated, my wife and daughters, who were ahead of me, showed up, probably after noticing the desperation in my voice, as I called out my son's name.  I went up to a store employee and told her my son was lost. Soon, there were several store employees around us, who started communicating on their walkie-talkies, as my wife shot off to another area of the store, where we had just been.  It was probably the longest three or four minutes (if that long) of my life.

Then, I saw my wife walking towards me with him in her arms.  He was crying. It was if God turned on my C-PAP machine, and I could finally breathe again; what a euphoric feeling.  Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last time I lost my son that weekend!

I really should have waited for the guy to move...
Anyway, to get back to my story, for me, the best part of the trip came on the last day. We went to morning Mass at St. Patrick's Cathedral. But, as we soon realized, this wasn't just like the other times we had attended Mass at St. Patrick's, with its magnificent architecture and rich history, which dates back to the mid-19th century, in the past.  The unexpected thrill was getting to hear Mass celebrated by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, probably the best known and beloved Catholic Bishops in the United States.

I know, I know; we don't go to Mass because of the priest.  We go to Mass because of the Eucharist, the Word of God and to worship the one true God of the universe.  Still, I couldn't help the excitement when my wife pointed out that he was listed as the celebrant in the program and saw him processing in, as a glorious and powerful choir sang at the far end and to one side of the altar. 

I must say, there are some people that are great speakers and there are others that were born to speak.  Like a good Irishman, Cardinal Dolan, who is the Archbishop of New York City and President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, is definitely the latter.

While the message of his homily centered around the Gospel reading on the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus, at the insistence of His Blessed Mother, performed His first miracle, the good natured priest managed to incorporate Martin Luther King Jr's birthday, his recent trip to Molokai, a Hawaiian Island where lepers were sent and Sts. Damian and Marianne Cope cared and treated them, the 40th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the despair that many of us feel when we think of all the obstacles to our faith in our nation and the hope in the God of change, all in a flawless and coherent discourse that left me in awe, he started his talk with some words on the death of his childhood hero, Hall of Fame great, Stan Musial.

Stan "The Man" Musial...
Having grown up in St. Louis, he said he first met "Stan the Man," as he was known, when Dolan was ten years old.  Musial apparently rustled his hair and called him "slugger," which left a lifetime impression on him.

As Dolan got older and became a priest, they became friends.  He said Musial was a lifelong devout Roman Catholic, who tried to go to Mass and receive communion on a daily basis.

When the Archbishop was appointed to the College of Cardinals by Pope Benedict XVI last year, Stan Musial sent him an autographed St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap and told him that now he could wear a "real red hat."

And, when Musial's wife of 71 years, Lillian, whom the legendary player met when they were both 15-years-old at St. Paul's Catholic Church in Daytona Beach, Florida, died last May, Dolan attended the wake, and said he knew the great ballplayer's time was soon to come.

He recalled an anecdote, that he loves to tell about a time when he went to lunch with Musial about twelve years ago.  Dolan asked him, "So, Stan, tell me, in today's game with artificial turf, a juiced up ball and shorter distance fences, how do you think you would do?"  Musial paused for a moment and then answered, "I don't know.  Today's ballplayers are pretty good.  But, I think if I were playing today, I'd hit about .275."  This was from a guy who had a lifetime batting average of .331, was a three-time National League MVP, won seven batting titles, participated in 24 All-Star games, hit 475 home runs and was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1969.

Dolan said, "Stan, what do you mean?  Don't you think that you're selling yourself just a bit short?"  Without a hitch, Musial answered, "But, I'm 80-years-old!"

The entire church burst into laughter.  What a special treat it was for my family to hear Mass from Cardinal Dolan. 

However, it gets better.  At the end of Mass, the procession went out, as they came in, through the center aisle, but then, as we were putting on our coats and collecting our belongings, I looked up and noticed the altar boy that carries the crucifix that leads the procession was walking up my aisle and up towards the front of the church again.  I looked back and I start seeing priests walk behind the crucifix and then I looked back even further and see that Cardinal Dolan, with his bigger than life smile and laugh, is coming around and greeting people.  I start taking pictures, although in my haste, and having just gotten my first iPhone, I apparently put it on video instead of picture.  I was taking five second videos instead of pictures!

A Cardinal's hug... 
And, wouldn't you know it, he comes straight to my family and starts talking to my younger daughter, who was already feeling ill (before the cab ride) and had slept through the entire Liturgy, so Cardinal Dolan turned his attention to my son, who my wife was carrying, "I think I heard you singing.  Was that you singing?"  My son smiled, and the jovial Cardinal hugged him.  As the MasterCard commercials said, it was "priceless."  Unfortunately, while I was still snapping away, my iPhone was still on video.  I missed the "money shot," as we say in news.  All I was able to capture was a two or three frame out of focus video.  Shoot me!  Oh, well.

After Mass we went to breakfast and then went walking in Central Park, where my son spotted a pile of old snow underneath a tree and started playing with it, as my wife and younger daughter went to climb one of the many boulders in the park.  As I sat and wrote some thoughts about the Cardinal's words for this blog, I looked to the tree where my son was playing and little David Copperfield was at it again!  He completely vanished from my sight.

My older daughter, who was with me, and I split up and started looking for him around a toddler playground; nothing.  I started getting that same sinking feeling that the captain of the Costa Concordia probably got and had felt only a few days earlier at Toys-R-Us.  Again, I started calling out his name and my wife showed up.  I could see it in her face, "Again?  Really?"  As a co-worker who I told the story to afterwards said, "Your wife must really be in love with you!"  Thanks a lot!

Anyway, after a few tense moments, my wife spotted him playing in another area of the park nearby.  You really have to keep an eye on small children.  They are elusive little suckers!

As I look back at our trip and the many adventures (and misadventures!) we shared, I can't help but think about the jingle that the family in Disney's Carousel of Progress sings, "These are times.  These are the best times of your life."  Therefore, we might as well enjoy them; the good, bad and uggly...