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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why do you Seek the Living Among the Dead?...

Life has never been the same...
In his classic book, Life of Christ, Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote, "In the history of the world, only one tomb ever had a rock rolled before it, and a soldier set to watch it to prevent the dead man within from rising; that was the tomb of Christ... What a spectacle could be more ridiculous than armed soldiers keeping their eyes on a corpse?"

"So they went and made the grave secure; they sealed the stone, and left the guard in charge."  (Matt 27:66) 

What despair and disillusionment the Apostles and disciples must have felt in those days.  For three years, many of them had followed a man who they thought was the Messiah.  The man who would liberate their people from the oppression of the Roman Empire and yet, he was arrested, brutally tortured and put to death in the most humiliating and violent manner that anyone was publicly executed at the time. 

They had witnessed miracles and healings, seen people's lives transformed, including their own, experienced joys and euphoria beyond their comprehension, and had learned more about faith, love, humility and service then they could ever have learned in a lifetime of study.  Yet, there they were hiding in darkness, physically and spiritually, with all the doors and windows shut and in fear for their lives.

And, then came the climax in Christian Salvation History.  Several women, including Mary Magdalen, who in their incredulity to the possibilities of the Resurrection, which Jesus often mentioned to His disciples, but apparently went on deaf ears, went early Sunday morning to anoint the dead body, and found to their astonishment; the tomb was empty.

Everything after that must have seemed like a blur to them.  He appeared to the women, to a couple of disciples walking to Emmaus, to the twelve and the Blessed Mother in the Upper Room, to Thomas, who doubted when the others said He had appeared, to Peter and several others at the Sea of Tiberias and many more times after that.

Jesus Christ is Risen and, because of that single moment in the annals of time two thousand years ago, twelve, mostly uneducated, men, who had gone into hiding in fear for their lives shortly after the Lord was arrested, went out boldly into the world and, despite persecution, constant harassment, threats, imprisonment and most dying horrific deaths, including crucifixions (Peter upside down), beheadings, being skinned and burned alive, and more, spread the "Good News," to all recesses of the Roman Empire and later the world.

Guard or no guard the tomb was empty and life has never been the same ever since.

Happy Easter...

Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Ultimate Power of Humility...

The Institution of the Eucharist...
As I have written before, probably my favorite Mass of the year is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday.

The night is significant for most Christians, since it is the beginning of the Passion of Christ, but for Roman Catholics, it takes an even deeper meaning.

On Holy Thursday, the Church commemorates the Institution of the Eucharist (the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ in the appearance of bread and wine), and of the priesthood, to perpetuate the eternal sacrifice of the Eucharistic meal by following His command of, “Do this in memory of me.”

Therefore, in most Catholic parishes, Holy Thursday is commemorated with all the pomp and circumstance the occasion deserves.

At our parish, that means a procession of our four active priests and four permanent deacons, a large contingency of Eucharist Ministers, altar-servers and lectors, the full adult choir, incense, candles, song and bells, and the church brimming to the rafters with parishioners.

I think, outside of Easter and Christmas, Holy Thursday is probably among the best attended services of the year (even with UM playing in the Sweet 16 the same night!).

Two years ago, when our pastor retired, we had the privilege of having the Bishop of St. Augustine, Felipe Estevez, who, at the time, was still an Auxiliary Bishop in Miami and serving as our interim pastor (not to mention, as Catholics believe, is a direct descendant of the Apostles), celebrate our liturgy on Holy Thursday.

As always, the gospel reading most commonly read during the Mass is from the Gospel of John, where Jesus’ washes the feet of the Apostles at the Last Supper to show them the meaning of love, service and humility and encourage them to follow in his example.

During the homily, Bishop Estevez pointed out that, for the Apostles, this submissive gesture transcended any human logic. Keep in mind that the washing of the feet was usually associated with the work of slaves and the lowest of the lowly. Yet, there He was their teacher, who they called “Master” and Lord, and believed to be the Son of God and the Messiah, humbling and degrading himself to wash their feet, which was regarded as the dirtiest part of the human body.

To some, it was downright scandalous. In fact, Peter balked when Jesus went to wash his feet, which is, of course, as the Bishop poignantly observed, how many of us react when we reject the Lord’s cleansing and healing grace because we feel unworthy.

In any case, following the example of Christ, on Holy Thursday, bishops, priests and deacons around the globe traditionally wash the feet of the faithful as part of the commemoration of the Last Supper.

I have to say, it is one thing to see our parish priests following in the footsteps of Jesus and washing the feet of twelve pre-selected parishioners, whom they mostly know. But, it’s by far more resonating to see Bishop Estevez, who is no spring chicken by any means, on his hands and knees and washing the feet of people he never met before.

Making disciples with humility...
I could only imagine what it would be like to have witnessed Pope Francis, who as a Cardinal in Argentina, regularly celebrated the Holy Thursday Mass in prisons, hospitals and hospices, and this year broke the longstanding Church tradition of celebrating the liturgy in one of the many basilicas in Rome, and instead went to a juvenile detention center, washing the feet of twelve troubled teens and young adults; a gesture that the chaplain of Casal del Marmo, Fr. Gaetano Greco, told the Catholic News Agency “will make them see that their lives are not bound by mistake, that forgiveness exists and that they can begin to build their lives again.”

And what greater time to rebuild one’s life than as we commemorate the death and resurrection of the Lord, starting on Holy Thursday, where Christians are called to die with Christ and be renewed in His Resurrection, so as St. Paul writes, it is no longer we that live but Christ that lives within us.

Unfortunately, it is often in the dying that we must rejoice. As Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say, “Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.”

At the end of the Mass, in many parishes, including mine, a procession with the Blessed Sacrament, the priests, deacons, ministers, altar-servers, choir and the entire church community in tow works its way in and around the church and concludes in the Adoration of the Sacred Host, usually somewhere that can accomodate the large crowd for several hours. 

Only the perfect love of a God that took on flesh and was willing to humiliate Himself before His Apostles, followers, persecutors and executioners, could also be willing to diminish Himself to the point of offering His Body and Blood, in the appearance of bread and wine, to feed His flock and be united with them in the most profound and incarnate way, so as to transform and transmit His life, hence it's no longer them but He that lives within them.  Now, that is the ultimate power of humility…

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

From the Soccer Field to the Priesthood…

In 2008, Chase Hilgenbrinck was living the dream. The Bloomington, Illinois product was in his mid-20’s. He was a professional soccer player, who after spending four seasons playing professionally in Chile, finally reached his goal of playing professionally in the United States, after signing an MLS contract with the New England Revolution. He had a beautiful girlfriend and lots of friends. He had money. He had relative fame. He had accomplished the things that society tells us are important in life and yet, he had a huge restlessness in his heart. He felt God calling him to the priesthood.

CNN has the story…

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

St. Joseph; Husband, Father and Loyal Servant of God...

Today, the Universal Church celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph; the man behind the Messiah and His Blessed Mother... 

From the prayer to St. Joseph:

Oh, St. Joseph, I never weary of contemplating you, and Jesus asleep in your arms; I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him in my name and kiss his fine head for me and ask Him to return the kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, Patron of departing souls - Pray for me.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Pope Francis, the Church and the Radio Host…

The new shepherd; Pope Francis... 
As I rushed to pick up my son at baseball practice after work last Wednesday, after the historic, and for me, emotional, selection and introduction of the first Latin American, first Jesuit and first non-European pontiff in over 1200 years in Roman Catholic Church history (not to mention, first Francis), I turned on the radio, and before getting a chance to catch my breath and reflect on the magnitude of the day’s developments, all the peace and joy in my heart was quickly dashed. (By the way, who would have thunk it? A humble Argentinean! It’s a joke don’t get bent out of shape.)

To my chagrin, I heard the host nonchalantly say, "Some people were hoping for a transformational pope; a progressive pope. And, what I mean by progressive is someone that would possibly change the Church's stance on issues such as marriage, women ordination and contraceptives, etc. Well, that's not expected with this pope."

If I hadn't given up swearing for Lent, I would have screamed expletives at the radio!  Are you kidding?  That wouldn't be expected with any pope! (By the way, I didn’t really give up swearing for Lent but am not inclined to, outside of an occasional Cuban ño!, that comes from the depths of my soul!)

Anyway, I always find it interesting how some people, including this host, who recently boasted that he tries to attend daily Mass, but unfortunately, maybe, through no fault of his own, lacks a sound catechetical formation, try to argue about Church matters from a secular perspective.

And, let me just say that I write from experience since, before I ever knew anything about my faith, I occasionally found myself arguing about the Catholic Church from a secular point of view as well.  Maybe, it has to do with the human longing for God: even when we don't recognize it.  I think it makes us try to understand God and therefore try to justify what we believe (or lack of belief), regardless of our understanding.       

In any case, ever since Pope Benedict announced his resignation, I’ve been hearing and reading media stories speculating on where the new pope would lead the Church in these “critical and trying times.” As if they are any more critical and trying then when Catholics were being fed to lions, drawn and quartered, beheaded, buried alive or during the Protestant Reformation.

The Church has survived over two millenniums and witnessed the rise and fall of countless of kingdoms and governments, not so much because of its great human leadership, although there have been many great leaders, but in spite of it. 

Moreover, do they really expect the Church to, all of a sudden, toss two thousand years of teachings (that, by the way, Catholics believe were passed directly from the Apostles to the bishops they appointed and down from generation to generation until today), out the window and change course?

Thursday morning, CNN had a banner that stated, “Pope Won’t Change on Sex Issues; Expected to maintain stance on gay marriages and contraceptives” and they invited guests on either side to the debate the topic.  

It’s as if truth was dependent on public opinion or what society and the culture accept.  Then again, that seems to be a prevalent thought today, considering we are constantly being told in everything from books, to movies, TV shows and commercials, that it's all about looking out for ourselves; our needs, our fulfillment and our happiness.

In fact, it may be why many people want to shape and mold God into what they want Him to be, instead of wanting to shape and mold themselves into what God wants them to be.

The flock...
On Sunday morning, I heard a local political pundit, who happens to have attended the same Sacred Heart school that my wife went to, say on NBC's Meet the Press, that as Catholics, "We don't really have to agree with the Pope on everything.  We just need to know that he's coming from the right place."

Really?  We don't have to agree with the Pope on everything?  Is that what Catholicism means?  Do we get to choose what we agree and disagree with like if we were ordering from a Morrison's Cafeteria line?

The answer of course, is that, although we may not have to agree on his favorite soccer team or color, when it comes to faith and morals, either we are Catholic and believe in the authority given to the Church and, specifically, the power of the keys given to St. Peter by Christ or we believe in our self; our own authority. 

As a matter of fact, the tendency to want to be our own authority is actually rooted in  original sin; also known as pride.  Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden fruit because they wanted their eyes to be opened and be like God, so as to decide good and evil and right and wrong on their own.

Many of us are so consumed with our notion of freedom and Democracy, where political debates are usually centered on liberalism versus conservatism, that we think it applies to God, His Kingdom and the truth (by the way, the last time I checked, kingdoms were all hierarchical!). 

It's what Pope Benedict XVI often called the "dictatorship of relativism," where morality is relative to who is claiming it.

However, the reality is that there is only one truth and, contrary to popular beliefs, it doesn't change.  It was the same in the time of Jesus.  It is the same today and it will be the same tomorrow.

I once had a discussion with a friend, who, while arguing this same issue, suggested as evidence that, at one time, people believed the earth was flat and that the sun revolved around the earth.  Yet, this doesn't prove that truth changes.  It only proves that our understanding of truth changes.    

In other words, the world was always round and the earth always revolved around the sun.  It was our understanding that actually changed, not the truth.

Furthermore, as Christians, we believe that God is unchanging and, since Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life," and is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, then we must conclude that truth is also unchanging.

Taking it a step further, since St. Paul points out the Church is the Body of Christ, then the truth of Jesus is the same truth of His Body; the Church, which He entrusted to make disciples of all nations and teach them to "obey everything" that He commanded, which brings us back to Pope Francis and the radio host.

A true servant of servants...
In his Apostolic Constitution at the beginning of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Bl. Pope John Paul II wrote, "Guarding the deposit of faith is the mission which the Lord entrusted to His Church, and which she fulfils in every age."

Therefore, regardless of who the pope may be, the truths that have been passed down through the ages can't ever change, despite what polls, CNN, women's rights activists, Sacred Heart political pundits or radio show hosts may say.  As a matter of fact, no pope even has the authority to overturn the teachings of a previous pope or of the Church as a whole. 

So, it is safe to say that, in some circles, the Church is never going to win any popularity contest and fortunately, it doesn't have to.  Christ promised His Apostles  they would be hated on His account and He wasn't kidding.  Still, He also told them the key is endurance and promised them the Holy Spirit to guide them to all the truth. 

Consequently, we who believe in the Church, as the living and visible Kingdom of God on earth, can be confident that it will continue to endure and maintain its Christ-given mission, despite its many critics, detractors and continuous attacks, both internally and externally, until the end of time.

Now, getting back to the humble Argentinean joke, maybe God is using the same approach that Victor Hugo took when writing the priest character, Bishop Myriel, in Les Miserables.  He is said to have wanted the character to serve as an example to, let's just say, the less humble priests and clergymen living in France during his time. 

We can only hope to see more humility and modesty used by the Argentinean soccer team during the next World Cup...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Woman Runs Marathon to Become a Nun...

Running for Greater Glory...
Talk about running for a crown that will last forever, as St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians; a 26-year-old California woman is running a full marathon to help raise money to pay off her student loans, so that she can join a monastery and become a cloistered nun.

An article in the Catholic New Agency states that Jenn Garza is committed to putting her body throught the grinding test for the sake of her spirit and those of all the people that support her in the run: 
... with a background in fitness and experience as a personal trainer in New York City – Garza said she realized through “a lot of prayer and discernment” that the best way to pay off her debt would be to ask supporters to sponsor her as she runs the southern California O.C. Marathon in May.

Dubbing it the “Litany Run,” Garza will commit to pray for each one of her supporters during the grueling 26.2 mile race by listening to a voice recording of all the prayer intentions.

Whether supporters can sponsor her financially or spiritually, Garza wants people to send her their prayer requests so she can sacrifice her race for them as to better prepare for life in the monastery.
In her web site Litany Run, Garza writes that she spent five years living and studying in New York City and London, but after attending World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain in 2011, where over a million young Catholics from around the world endured stormy weather to join Pope Benedict XVI in an open air mass at the Cuatro Vientos Aerodrome, she felt a calling by God to enter religious life.

... my group got there late and was not allowed into the vigil site, due to there not being enough space to fit all of the pilgrims. Instead we took refuge from that evening's hurricane under some trees just outside the aerodrome - along with 35 Sisters of Life, two Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and one seriously holy priest from my then home Archdiocese of New York.

There, in the middle of a storm, our disappointment in not being inside the vigil site with our fellow pilgrims faded away as we danced, praised and worshiped the Lord, sang Evening Prayer, and were blessed to have enough food for over 50 people with plenty to spare for other pilgrims who were also stuck outside.  It was that evening that my eyes were truly opened to both the humanity and holiness of consecrated people, as I witnessed the utterly joyful lives of these sisters, friars and priests. For the first time, I understood that these were real people - humans who loved, laughed, hurt, cried, joked, danced and experienced life just like the rest of us. Except they did it all in pursuit of perfect charity and with a view toward unity with the Creator of the universe... I truly saw and appreciated the contagious fire that was burning in their hearts - to do the will of God and to spread the Gospel with their whole lives - and I desired it greatly. It was that evening that my heart was opened to the possibility of religious life for the first time, as I heard the Lord call to me through the wind, rain, and beautiful sounds of a holy guitar, "Follow me!"
Garza goes on to say that she felt God was proposing to her that night, and, like the Blessed Virgin Mary when approached by the angel, she said, "Yes."

She began to discern her vocation, left New York and went back home to Fresno, California, where her family lives.  After several months of prayer and contemplation, she decided to turn her life over to God and found a community of cloistered nuns that accepted her, starting next August. 

She will close the doors on all the attachments of this world and dedicate her life to growing closer to God, through prayer and service to her community.

But, first, she has to pay off the $53k in student loans she accrued and, realizing that working two jobs wasn't going to cut it fast enough, she decided to raise the funds by running the marathon and getting sponsors.

As St. Paul writes, she is putting her body through strict training, so as to win the  prize...

For more information on Garza and how you can help, go to Litany Run,

[pic credit: Catholic News Agency/ Jennifer Garza]

Thursday, March 7, 2013

And, the Greatest of These is Love...

Love is patient, love is kind. It is not jealous, [love] is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Cor 13:4-7)

As challenging as St. Paul's words may sound, especially in today's "me" generation of instant gratification and no-fault divorce, as my wife and I celebrate our 15th Civil Wedding Anniversary today, I can honestly say that, while not always easy, love is forever and I couldn’t imagine life without it... 

Friday, March 1, 2013

The Spartan Race, a Prayer and Marital Bliss...

Is this mud or raw sewage?...
As I tried to sit up the morning after competing in the Reebok Super Spartan Race last Sunday, I honestly felt like a truck ran me over.

Without exaggerating, every single muscle in my body, except maybe the orbicularis oris, which enwraps the mouth, including places I didn’t even know I had muscles, was hurting.

To top it off, my head was pounding, as though I had spent the previous night drinking with the boys on one of those wild nights of my youth, where I could stay up past midnight without falling asleep, and a five-year-old boy wasn’t going to wake me up in the wee hours of the morning to get into bed with me, due to dehydration (those couple of beers at the end of the race didn't help!).

Just trying to sit up, felt like someone had taken my intestines and tied them up in a knot while I was sleeping. Luckily, my gluteus maximums were hurting more than my stomach, so it didn't feel it as bad, and my lower back was hurting more than my gluteus, making the pain in my buttocks seem less painful as well.  When I finally rocked myself up in our mattress, which seemed particularly soft and consuming that morning, I think my eyes teared up.

I should have known what I was getting into. As they were marking my arms with my number (88594), which happens to be my lucky number and the number in the back of my high school baseball uniform (I had broad shoulders!), I couldn’t help but think whether it was for in case they found me by the side of the trail a few hours later.

It was the first of several times that day, where I wondered, “Why am I doing this?”

Oh, yes. And, the answer kept coming back to one reason; my wife!

The culprit...
Ok., maybe, I can’t blame it all on her. I volunteered for it. No one twisted my arm (as she would say). But it was her idea!  She said it would be fun and give us something that we can do together.  Besides, she said, we could help each other; famous last words!

In any event, just days before my 49th birthday, I undertook probably the most grueling and draining endeavors of my life, outside of running cycles after baseball practice in high school, or the time my friends and I broke down on the highway and, in our enthusiasm, vigor and, most of all, naiveté, decided to jog almost 10 miles home to Hialeah in the early morning hours.

As the eight-mile race got underway, and I passed the first few hurdles; two four foot fences to jump over, two others to crawl under, running in ankle deep water and then walking in waist-deep water, I thought, “Hey, this is not so bad. I can do this.”

Needless to say, it didn't take long after failing to successfully cross the monkey bars, and being forced to do burpees, swimming, climbing over two 8-foot wooden walls, over and under and through several other walls and running for about two and a half miles through a treacherous black diamond bike trail, where we had to run through uneven terrain, duck tree limbs, avoid countless stumps, roots and branches, negotiate makeshift bridges, logs and steps, and work our way through the maze of twists and turns, up and down and around, of what felt like never-ending foliage, that I started having second thoughts.

By that time, I had lost my, "It'll be fun! We will all do this as a team and stay together" spewing wife, and most of the fifteen other friends and fellow "Reluctant Warriors," as we had named ourselves, and I was basically running by myself.

From time to time, I would pass a runner or two or be passed. But, for extended periods of time, I was all alone with my thoughts, and, as I tuned out the noise around me, all I could hear were my running shoes hitting the ground and my breath blowing out of my mouth.

It was actually very peaceful and, if I do say, spiritual. I started praying a Rosary when the race began and by the half-way point, after climbing up and down a 12-15 foot rope ladder, dragging a chain with a block of cement wrapped at the end for God knows how long, going through two muddy waste-deep pits, where we were getting pelted with water from a high pressured hose, I started a second Rosary.

It was apropos that shortly afterwards, we had to carry a heavy sandbag for about a quarter of a mile on our back, which, despite my fatigue by that point, gave me inspiration to proceed, since I thought, "Jesus, you carried a much heavier load on your back for my sake, I can carry this sandbag for as long as I have to (but not a second longer, because it was starting to weigh and my shoulders were screaming in pain!).

I was able to dump off the sandbag just in the nick of time and resumed my running, as I continued to pray.  Then, before I knew it, I reached the end of the trail and a sign that read, "Mile 6." Mile six, only? Are you kidding me? I thought I was almost done!  

By that time, a tendon behind my left knee, which had been bothering me for the last couple of weeks of training, was barking fiercely and my lower back was already pulling a Roberto "No mas" Duran on me. And then, as I looked up, I noticed there were three obstacles back-to-back. Great!

I guess, you can say I felt like the dwarves in JRR Tolkien's The Hobbit, where after hearing the great news that the dragon, Smaug, who had terrorized the region and amassed mounds upon mounds of gold, was finally dead, and their months-long adventure to recover the gold, which had led them to face giant spiders, wolves, trolls, goblins, elves and several encounters with near death, was apparently going to have a happy ending, they find out that the Lake-men and elves were organizing armies to come get the dragon’s loot. (As my son would say, “Oh, man!”)

Anyway, after catching up with the intermediate group of friends (my wife was in the advanced group!), and getting past the three obstacles; carrying a huge block of cement about 25 feet, some more burpees, then climbing over two more 8-foot walls and finally flipping truck tires; which is probably where my gluteus took a beating and made me consider once again, "Now, why am I doing this?" Oh, yes; my wife!  (I'm sure my life insurance would come in handy to her and the kids!)

Then, I noticed that another friend, who had been trailing behind me most of the way, was missing. I decided to wait for him.

For the last two miles we stayed together, as we lifted a heavy a cement block using a rope pulley (they have a thing for cement!), repelled down the side of a bridge, pulled buckets full of water from a river into a trash can, climbed back over the other side of the bridge (yes, just writing this is wearing me out again!) and walked/ran until the final obstacles at the end of the race.

Crossing the finish line...
In fact, after attempting to climb a rope, while my wife, friends and children cheered on (and having to do more burpees when I failed), climb a wall sideways from one end to another, roll about 100 yards under barbed wire in the mud (which smelled like raw sewage!), climbing over a mud-covered ramp while pulling myself up with a rope, and getting past three muscle-bound men with poles at the end, we finished within a couple of seconds of each other.

It took us slightly over three hours and may not have been a pretty win, as they say in sports, but we finished! 

Therefore, after crossing the finish line, as friends and family cheered my name, a volunteer placed a medal over my head and another gave me a t-shirt that said, "I survived the Super Spartan Race" (and I felt an uncanny urge to call out, "Adrianne!)," I high-fived my friend and gave him a muddy hug, and the thought crossed my mind again, "So, why did I do this?"  Oh, yes; my wife.  Thank you, wife!  As the late 70's song once said, "The things we do for love." 

We already signed up for a 5-mile Mud Run next month...