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Monday, July 10, 2017

Family, a First Communion and Feeling at Home in London...

Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?  Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.  (1 Cor 10:16-17)

The pride of Austin Powers...  
I'll be honest, when my sister-in-law moved to England about a decade and a half ago, I never imagined that it was permanent; maybe still don't!  She left to get a doctoral degree in Art History and, like in most Cuban families, the expectation was that in a few years, she would come home to Miami (where all Cuban exiles belong!).

Well, as it turns out, the art degree became as unlikely as Italian Jazz musician Louis Prima showing up at Paradise, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Segundo's (Stanley Tucci) restaurant in Big Night (if you haven't seen the movie, check it out.  It's worth your while!), possibly with as much drinking, dancing and eating in the interim (Not that I'm suggesting my sister-in-law went to party but...).

In any case, she never did get her doctorate but, she may have gotten something better or worse (depending on your perspective)

She met an Englishman, a Roman Catholic, by the way (which make up less than 10 percent of the population in the entire country!), fell in love, got married and settled in London.

Sisters; my wife on the left...
Now, fifteen years later, they have two kids; ages ten and seven.  She got an English citizenship, uses words like "brilliant, rubbish and cheerio," drinks tea instead of coffee, sings God Save the Queen instead of My Country, Tis of Thee, and participates in countless causes and marches (Apparently, a requirement to live in London!).  So, she's a bona fide Cuban/American-Brit, who considers London her home.  

Last month, after a ten-year hiatus for me, and two years for my wife and older daughter, we crossed the pond to her hometown with the kids, my mother-in-law and her aunt and uncle for a "holiday," as they say, to attend our nephew's (their son's) First Holy Communion.
It seems like every time we're there it's to celebrate a Sacrament and that's because it's been that way!  The last time I went was for our niece's Baptism.  Two years ago, my wife and then 14-year-old daughter visited for her First Communion.  Unfortunately, our nephew was Baptized in Miami! (So, no trip abroad!)  
One of the great things about the sacramental life of the Church is that, like our Mother, She is always by our side every step of the way.  Therefore, if they stay, we can plan several more trips to London in the coming years! (I'm thinking, at least, 2 Confirmations and 2 Weddings but, then again, we can always join them for a random Confession or Communion from time to time!) And, that nurturing aspect of the Church; that sense of home, is precisely what came to mind as I sat at his First Communion Mass.   

The Fab Five at London Bridge...
But first, let me tell you about our trip.  We had an amazing time; mostly because we were spending time together, discovering new places and experiencing new adventures; like my wife and I getting lost, following the GPS on my cell phone, and walking through a rough and scary neighborhood (I won't lie, I kept looking around and hiding my neck in my shirt waiting for a guy in a turban and big knife to jump out yelling, "Death to the infidels," at any time.  Yes, fear has a bonding effect on a couple!).  We rode the London bus system and the "Tube," using our Oyster cards (like the locals).  We had tea (espresso for me, thank you, very much!) with the entire family at the British Museum.  We picked up our niece and nephew at school and took our niece to tennis practice.  We met my sister-in-law and her husband at a food and wine festival, then hit a local pub.  I led my wife and kids to a breakfast joint that looked better on paper than when we got there (I never lived it down for the rest of the trip!).  And, my wife and I jogged through one of the many forests (parks that are like forests) in the middle of London, stopping at nearby a Starbucks for an Americano afterwards.  It was great (not the Americano so much but the vacation!).

Moreover, our younger daughter got to take a dance class at the Internationally acclaimed Pineapple Dance Studio in Covent Gardens, my wife got to do a spinning class at a local gym and I smoked cigars and drank scotch, while walking the streets of our Muswell Hill Airbnb neighborhood, like Jack the Ripper in the late night hours, when everybody (including my family) was asleep.  The second night I did this I sweat like a pig.  It was hot! (We were expecting temperatures in the high 60's in the day and high 50's at night.  Instead, we got weather as hot as 86 degrees in the day and high 70's at night!  And, guess what, our Airbnb, like most English homes and apartments, didn't have air conditioning!).
The entire clan sans me (taking picture)...

We also hit many of the tourist sites; The Tower of London, The British Museum, Big Ben (which is actually the Elizabeth Tower!  Big Ben is just the nickname for the clock bell), Westminster Abbey (the once Catholic monastery, which became the main Cathedral for the Anglican Church after King Henry VIII broke away; as Mel Brooks would say, "It's good to be the king."  He wanted a divorce, was rejected by the Pope, so he started his own religion!), walked across London Bridge (It held up!), rode a ferry on the River Thames and drove by St. Paul's Cathedral, Parliament and Buckingham Palace, among other sites.   
Now, going back to my thoughts at the First Communion.  They say home is where the heart is and, regardless of whether we call Miami home or, for my sister-in-law, it's London, what never fails to amaze me, no matter where we go, is that when I go to Mass, I feel a sense of home; the familiarity, the comfort, the smells, the peace, and, of course, the family meal.  It's almost surreal that we participate in the same Mass being celebrated anywhere around the globe on any given day, including in Heaven, where Christ is the High Priest and perpetually offers His Body as the ultimate sacrifice for all. 

It's that universality that prompted St. Ignatius of Antioch to refer to the Church as "Catholic" (meaning universal) in the late 1st century.  The term stuck.

St. Joseph built in 1861...
Hence, there we were at St. Joseph's Church in Highgate Hill (They're full of hills!  You may have heard of Notting Hill, of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts fame).  It is a beautiful parish with a copper dome, covered in green patina, which dates back to the late 19th century, during a relaxation on the construction of Catholic Church buildings in the mostly Anglican nation. 

Although, the church inside has seen better days and some of the original murals are chipping off above the canopy over the high altar, you can feel the historicity of the thousands of parishioners who have undoubtedly worshiped there for the past 150 years.   

Fittingly the First Communion landed on the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ, which meant the readings all related to the Eucharist, including the Bread of Life discourse in the Gospel of John, God feeding manna to the Israelites from Deuteronomy and the First Corinthians reading, which I included above.  

During his homily, the priest told the children and congregation that "God unites his faithful through the Sacrament of the Eucharist. We become one with Him.  He becomes one with us."  

It's funny, the night before the Communion, the entire family gathered for dinner at a local restaurant and our nephew asked his mom a curious question, "Mom, how big is Jesus?"  
The man with questions... 

She was a bit perplexed, "What do you mean?"  
He answered, "Because if He feeds Himself to us every Sunday, how big can He be?"  It was laughed off as one of those questions kids ask.

However, the more I thought about it, the more I thought he needed an answer.  So, when we went outside after dinner, I took him aside and said, "Do you know how big Jesus is?  He's bigger than we can ever imagine.  He's so big that He can feed each and every one of us every day for the rest of our lives and we can never finish eating Him."  I'm not sure that it satisfied his curiosity, since he looked confused, but I didn't want his question to linger without an answer.

At the end of Big Night (spoiler alert!), after the two brothers have gotten into a blowout fight and went their own way, and having spent all their earnings on a party for a guest that never showed up, one of the brothers, Segundo (Tucci), wakes up the next day and goes to the restaurant kitchen.  We see their one employee (Marc Anthony) sleeping on a counter.  

Segundo goes and gets some eggs.  He turns on the stove as the employee gets up, pours some oil in a pan, cracks some eggs and starts scrambling them.  Without saying a word, he then goes to get a couple of plates and forks, as the employees goes to fetch some bread.  Segundo pours a third of the eggs on the employee's plate, another third on his plate and covers the remaining third.

They sit down and start eating.  No words are said.  As they eat their breakfast, Primo walks in. Segundo goes to the rack where the plates are, grabs one and a fork, pours the remaining eggs on the plate and places it on the seat next to him.  No words are said.

The bonding effect of sharing a meal... 
Primo sits and eats his eggs, as Segundo continues eating and the employee leaves them alone. Segundo then reaches over and puts his arm around his brother, who continues eating and puts his arm around him as well. It's a powerful ending.

Sharing a meal, especially among friends and family, has a unifying effect.

So, there we were, over four thousand miles from home, and yet we were home in the bosom of the Church, celebrating the same Mass that my parents were partaking in Miami, along with our nephew, niece, other members of my wife's family, and our British brothers and sisters; including the man with the dozen plus rings along the length of his ear and three more in his nose and the lady with the green and pink hair!

"This is the first day that you will receive the Body of Christ in your hand, on your tongue and down your throat," the clergyman told the First Communion kids, "We share in the banquet of the Lord every Sunday (And, every day, if we choose!).  It is the food that sustains our souls on our journey to heaven."

While, my sister-in-law's home is now in London, and may never again be Miami, whether it's St. Joseph, St. Isabel in Sanibel, where we vacation every year, or anywhere else, we are never far from home in the Church, where we share in God's family meal, or, as St. Paul puts it, are united in the One Bread...

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Raising Daughters, College and The Notebook...

Appropriated for a 12-year-old?... 
There's a fine balance between being a strong father and alienating your children.  It's a fine line I don't always walk too gracefully, especially, in recent weeks, according to my wife.

Raising two teenage daughter, well, one is sixteen and the other a few months shy of the teen threshold, is proving to be a bit of a challenge for me.

Maybe, not so much in the typical sense of teenage rebellion or defiance that parents brace for and expect, but in my own internal struggle of trying to cope with my girls growing up faster than I am ready for and wanting to impart to them the wisdom that has taken me a lifetime to attain, so they can circumvent the many pitfalls, missteps and confusion I experienced, especially when it comes to God, faith and morality.

My high school teen is heading into her junior year and starting to look at universities to apply to and I'm terrified at the state of academia in some of the more liberal renown schools she's been mentioning; even some of the Catholic institutions are a little suspect, with the exception of the ones that she refuses to consider (Because they are my suggestions!).

If there's something I've heard over and over in recent years is how easily Catholic kids, who are not deep-seeded in their faith, even those who attended parochial schools all their lives and Mass with their parents on Sundays, go off to college and lose their faith or end up agnostics, at best, after a heavy dose of mostly Atheist professors for four years and coed dorm roommates, who ridicule the faith, because it doesn't agree with their morally questionable lifestyles.

It's like that often-used Dostoevsky line from The Brothers Karamov, "If God does not exist, everything is permisible."

While nothing new, it's still hard for me to grasp that soon, my daughter will be in school exposed to a vicious cycle of reinforced waywardness, even more than I ever encountered because now, everything is permissible (As evident by the 58 different gender options on Facebook!), as she tries to live on her own for the first time, while still growing in the maturity needed to balance her newfound "freedom" with the responsibility that "freedom" entails, while making decisions that may be heavily influenced by her friends.  I know because I was there.  Unfortunately, I may even have been one of the bad influences that led innocent kids astray!

Of course, every student is different (and I don't just mean in gender identification sense, which is confusing enough!) and, as my own daughter says, I have to "trust the way we raised her" (I hate it when my kids make more sense than me!).  Yet, my concern is real nonetheless.

Meanwhile, my younger daughter is miss lovebird.  She has been having boyfriends practically from the time she learned to write and currently has a "romantic" interest, who comes over and she goes to his house as well.

He seems like a good kid, who comes from a good family.  Yet, the other day, I had a bit of a meltdown when she told us, nonchalantly mind you, that they watched the movie, The Notebook, together.  What?  Are you kidding me? 

Granted, some of you may say, it's a touching story about steadfast devotion that bolsters the wedding vows of, "Till death do us part," and "In sickness and in health."  But, how about all those flashbacks to hot scenes in their youth, the angry fighting that lead to hot scenes and, then, after they break up and she's engaged to another guy, they get together again and more hot scenes?  It's a hot scene fest! They can't keep their hands off each other and, worse of all, they're not even married!  In fact, the movie never really says whether their hot romance and cohabitation ever leads to marriage!  

So, there I was, making the point to my 12-year-old daughter, in my own animated way (And, I can get a bit passionate when I'm stressing something important, which at times, can be construed as anger, even though I wasn't), that if sex is the message the culture continuously tells kids is OK, then it's what kids will think is expected of them.

In other words, if making out, heavy petting and, dare I say the act that a former U.S. President called, "not having sex," is alright in movies, social media, books and TV shows, then kids have the pressure of living up to those expectations.

If it leads to sexual relations then, well, that's why some public schools systems, across the country, are passing out condoms and artificial birth control; whether the child's parents approve or disapprove, since the message is clear; teens are nothing but animals, who can't control their hormones, and having sexual intercourse is what it means to be "in love," and what it means to be an adult.  As a father of two girls and a 9-year-old boy, who is fortunately still clueless, it's a frightening prospect!
Still, my wife says she can't believe how belligerent I have been acting with the girls lately.  "If you think you're going to draw them closer to the faith in that way," she said one recent night when we were alone, "you're very mistaken.  You're going to drive them away!  Even if you were right, you're coming across like a fanatic."

It's a sobering thought and she is totally right; just don't tell her that, please! (Let's see, I have the kids and the wife sounding smarter than me.  All I need now is for the dogs to make me look bad. Then again, they usually do when I forget to walk them!)

In any case, as I thought about my abrasive advice-giving to my daughters, it became clear that all my recent anxiety and aggressive tendencies stem from fear.  I'm afraid of failing as a father, due in part to insecurities about my own inadequacies and failures.  In the meantime, I may be alienating my kids instead of fathering them.    

St. Thomas Aquinas once wrote, "Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take over us, it drives compassion right out of our hearts."

I guess it comes down to a lack of faith, which is a consequence of my lack of trust; in, as my older daughter in her astuteness pointed out, the way we raised them (although, we're not raising the boys that will come knocking at the door, but I'll put that aside for now!), in their own judgement, as smart and independent thinkers, and, most of all, in God.  I'm not trusting God and, by now, I should know better.

I think, for me, it is easier to trust in God when it pertains to me and my wife because I've accepted that we are not in control.  My faith is, for the most part, unwavering.  Yet, when it comes to my children, the difficulty I'm finding is that I've gotten so used to being in control and I forget that, eventually, I'll have to let go and place them in God's hands too.  The question is knowing when (albeit not yet!).

It's remarkable how when you think you are starting to understand the intricacies of God, he humbles you by showing you just how little you really know.

The proverb  writer stated it best, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him and he will make straight your path." (Prov 3:5-6)...   


Saturday, June 3, 2017

Faith, Reason and Man's Search for Truth...

"Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth - in a word himself - so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves."

-- St. John Paul II (1920-2005), also known as St. John Paul the Great was a Pope, Theologian, Author and one of the most influential and inspiring figures in modern world history.  In his youth, Karol Wojtyla was an actor, poet and writer, before feeling the call to the priesthood.  As a young priest, Fr. Wojtyla, was a university professor in Poland, who attracted students because of his profundity, communication skills and warm and candid personality.  Many of those college students became lifelong friends, who he helped through marriages, family and vocations.  He experienced firsthand the wrath of Nazism, followed by Communism in his homeland.  Ironically, he later helped bring down Communism in Poland without a single shot being fired.  He was elected pope in 1978 and served in that capacity until his death in 2005.  His passion for marriage and the family grew stronger during his papacy, as he developed the Theology of the Body, which started gaining form while he was still a university professor.  He wanted to be known as the pope of the family.  On April 27, 2014, Pope Francis canonized him, along with Pope John XXIII, as saint.  His feast day is October 22nd...      

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Road to Jericho and What We Fail To Do...

Notice the two in the background...
"I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned; in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do..." (Penitential Act)

It's funny, alright, maybe not in the ha-ha amusing way but in an interesting sense nonetheless, we pray that prayer every Sunday at Mass but, when most of us think of sin, we think of things we have done and not what we have not done.  It's the obvious that jars our consciences.

However, the subtleties of sin, lie in our failures; that beggar we avoid at the red light so as to avoid giving him a buck, the friend who asks us for a favor and we come up with a lame excuse because we don't want to be bothered or the leaving of something we could have done to our spouse of because of, well, laziness (In my case; guilty, guilty, guilty!).

Last Tuesday, I found myself on that road to Jericho in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  However, instead of being the Samaritan, I was more like the priest and Levite, who saw the victim dying by the side of the road and crossed to the other side to avoid him.

Let me start from the beginning.  There's an eccentric French lady that lives near my house, who for some strange reason started showing up unannounced at our house for us to give her rides to meetings at our parish, if you can imagine that!  This could have been on a random Tuesday or Wednesday night, or on a night there was a special event that we were attending.  It didn't matter.  Not wanting to be rude and thinking it was our Christian duty, we took her several times.

She's a widow, as I found out, during one of our conversations to and from our destination and she moved to Miami after her husband's death.  Her children are already grown and living on their own in other parts of the country so she moved to the States to be closer to them but was living on her own in South Florida (with her dog).

In recent months, we haven't seen much of her much after, one time, she showed up for a ride at an inopportune time and I told her, possibly a bit curt, if not outright rude, that I couldn't give her a ride. In all honesty, I was getting a bit perturbed that she kept showing up asking and expecting a ride!  In hindsight, I feel terrible about my lack of charity; maybe it's my Catholic guilt!

In any case, on Tuesday, as I was rushing to the market to pick up dinner because I noticed that the meat I was planning on cooking was going to take way too long to prepare and I needed a Plan B, there she was walking by herself on the sidewalk, pushing a cart in the direction of the market I was heading to.  For a minute, I thought about pulling over and taking her the rest of the way.

However, as I got closer, I started thinking of whether this was going to start the cycle going again and I really didn't want it to.  So, I turned left at the corner before reaching her.

Yes, just two days removed from a spiritual retreat, where I came out feeling inspired to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned, I found myself avoiding a woman, like the Jehovah's Witnesses knocking at the door, because I didn't want to go through the trouble.  

But, wait, the story gets worse.  As I am driving away in turmoil about what I am doing, I decide to turn back and take her.  It's like I have the angel and the demon battling over my shoulder; one saying to pick her up because it's the Christian thing to do.  The other saying, "You're in a hurry, she's already almost there.  So what if it rains?  She must be used to walking in the rain in France! Besides, for all you can tell, she's not hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or imprisoned."

I came around with my car to the street she was still walking on and the demon was saying, "Look, she's even closer now and if you pick her up, then the right thing to do would be to wait for her to finish shopping to take her back home.  Your family will get upset that dinner is going to be late because you were waiting for her to finish shopping!  And, look, she's all sweaty.  She's going to stink up your car." Son of a bi#$%!  The demon won!  I rode right past her and pretended not to recognize her.

Wow!  After ten years of walking in the Light of Christ, and having gone out of my way on many occasions for others, I still revert to my base!  And so deliberately!  What a fine example of loving my neighbor.  Sad.

Yet, the struggle between doing what is right and doing what is convenient is real.  It's a choice that every Christian is forced to make with regularity.  While, there's no doubt part of me wanted to help, I didn't and the more I don't the easier it gets.  

It reminded of a line C.S. Lewis wrote in The Screwtape Letters, "The more often he (man) feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel."    

Sin is sin, whether obvious or sublime.  It separates us from God.  At the center of sin is I.  Any time, I put "I" at the center of my actions, more than likely, there is sin.  In fact, the more obscure, the more dangerous they can be.

Again from Screwtape, "It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing.  Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick.  Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one -- the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts."

The key then is getting to the point, where we recognize when stumble, repenting and seeking God's forgiveness. I've been asking for forgiveness ever since and will be taking it to the Confessional as soon as I can.

In the meantime, I'm hopeful, God will give me another opportunity to be the Good Samaritan and whether it's with our French neighbor, or someone else He puts in my path, I will not fail to do again...

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Jesus, Religion and My Friends...

He's got it all wrong...
An old and dear friend recently posted a video on Facebook of a rap poem that went viral five years ago, about hating religion but loving Jesus.

Among its many claims, the poet suggests that Christ came to abolish the institutionalized practice of devotion to God because of corruption.

It's amazing.  The video has over 32 million views!

I first saw it during the height of the frenzy, as well as several responses, including by Bishop Robert Barron and Fr. Claude Burns (aka Fr. Pontifex on YouTube, who produced his own clever rap poem using the same motif as the original) but it got me thinking, about all those millions of people, who, maybe like my friend, agree, or at least sympathize, with the poet's claim to loath religion in a culture that is so infused with a warped sense of individuality and freedom.

Unfortunately today, instead of an Absolute Truth, which dictates and shapes our understanding and guides our moral behavior, truth, with a small t, has become subject to interpretation. Therefore, one man's truth is as valid as the next guy's and his, is as valid as the one next to him and so on.  It's part of the "coexist" mentality.

Meanwhile, in all this individualism and freedom (Which by the way, Lincoln once said, "is not the right to do what we want, but what we ought"), our relationship with God has suffered in the process. God has been bent and contoured to fit the image and likeness of the individual, instead of the individual transforming his life to fit God.  So, if someone doesn't like the message of the church they're attending because it doesn't fit their lifestyle, they go down the block and find one that does.

As Catholic author/speaker Stephen Ray said at a conference I attended recently, "Americans choose their churches and their morals like they choose their restaurants; how they feel that day."

In this case, the poetic rapper makes the point that it's all about him and Jesus; a vertical relationship, which has no room for authority, doctrine and, least of all, religion.

But, did Jesus mean it to be just about a relationship without religion?

Last weekend, I was at one of, what I regularly call, my biannual weekend getaways with the boys, although, I point out, it is without alcohol, drugs, tattoos, debauchery or the traps that Hollywood movies like to showcase.

It was a retreat, meant to lead men, from all walks of life, ages and faith backgrounds, to a closer relationship with Jesus and His Church, which I have been involved with for the past ten years.

The power of the Cross...
Yet, as long as I have been serving on these spiritual sanctums, it took until this year, while I was running errands and thinking about the hating religion and loving Jesus video that my friend posted, for me to realize that the underline theme of the retreats, and this last one in particular, is the Cross, and its vertical and horizontal relational components.

What I mean by that is that, according to Jesus' own words, the greatest Commandments are to love God (vertical) and love our neighbor (horizontal).  So, our faith was never meant to be individualistic and inward but public and outward.

In fact, at one point on Saturday, one of the men I was talking to shared that, while he wanted to believe in God, his faith was still a struggle for him, which reminds me of the father, whose son was possessed, and, after Jesus cures him, says, "Lord, I believe, help my unbelief."

I told him that, for me, one of the ways I know God exists is because I feel His presence through the brotherhood in the holy grounds of the retreat house, which is why I keep coming back!  God becomes real in the love we share with one another, the service we render, the peace we experience and the lives we impact. It's surreal. That's the horizontal aspect of the Cross.

So, it's not just about me and Jesus because that's not what Jesus taught.

I remember, before attending my first men's getaway, when I was one of those people who said I believed in God "in my own way."  And, I didn't need the Pope, or the Church, or anybody else telling me how or what to believe. Maybe, I was a lot more like the rapper poet in the video, than I would like to admit.

However, the more I learned about my faith and the more I studied the Bible, the more I understood that it's not just about me and God.  It's about me and God and the person in the pew next to me, and my family, and my friends, and my co-workers and the people I come across on any given day.

It's about family; God's family, which is what the Bible is all about.

Jesus called us to take care of one another, even our enemies, and said that our final judgement was not going to be based on our relationship or our faith but on our love and service for others; "For I was hungry and you gave me to eat; thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you invited me in; naked and you clothed me; sick and you visited me; in prison and you came to me; ... whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did for me." (Matt 25:31-40)

The keys to the kingdom of heaven...
Let's also keep in mind that Jesus was a devout Jew, who observed the Jewish customs, including Passover, attending service at the Temple, affirming Scripture, the Commandments and the Law of the Prophets.

Furthermore, He tells His disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach." (Matt 23:2-3)

While He railed against corruption of the religious of His time, He also said He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

In any case, the bottom line is this; Christ knew the human condition.  He understood well that left to our own devices, our pride, egos and self-righteousness would eventually lead to division and strife, including about the faith.

That is why He did not leave us a book.  He founded and left us a Church (And, dare I say a religion), which He founded upon the Rock of Peter, which He gave the Keys to the Kingdom.  A Church, whom He promised the Holy Spirit to guide to "all the truth," gave the power to "bind and loose on earth what would be bound and loosed in heaven," said that whoever listens to them, listens to Him and whoever rejects them, rejected the one who sent Him, and vowed the "gates of hell would never prevail against."

Members of His Church, the Apostles and their successors, have been heeding to Jesus' Last Command to make disciples of all nations and baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit ever since.  They preserved and passed on the teachings of Christ from generation to generation.  They compiled and canonized the books of the Bible. They started the hospital and university systems, established orphanages, helped the poor, the sick and the downtrodden and became the largest charitable organization on the planet.

Two thousand years later, despite continuous attempts to destroy it both from without and from within, His Church (And religion) is over one billion strong, and, just as its founder, has and will always be a sign of contradiction in the culture; no matter what the popular opinion may be.

You can't have a king without his kingdom and you can't have Jesus without His Church (And Religion), no matter how many views a video may get...

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Priest and the Hour That Will Change Your Life...

Speaking from the heart...
If there is a Catholic priest that could give a Protestant Megachurch Pastor a run for his money, albeit with a different kind of altar call and sans the accompanying rock band, it may be Fr. Mike Schmitz.

He's funny.  He's charismatic.  He's passionate, entertaining and his extensive biblical insight and communication skills are unquestionable.   And they shouldn't be.

The dynamic priest specializes in reaching young people in universities throughout the United States, as head of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, speaking engagements and his work on social media.

He creates short videos, about five to ten minutes long, on topics ranging from the Meaning of Suffering, Aren't All Churches the Same and Why do Bad Things Happen to Can I get a Tattoo, Batman v. Superman and Will My Pet Be in Heaven and anything in between.  He has over 200 videos (You can check them out here).  

Yet, he's more than just a teacher.  He captivates, provokes and inspires.  To top it off, he's blessed with Hollywood good-looks and a Midwestern humility.

This particular talk below, which he delivered at the SEEK Conference in Nashville, Tennessee to college students in 2015, is a bit on the long side.  I discovered it after listening to Fr. Mike mention it on a recent radio show he was on.  The title peaked my interest: "The Hour That Will Change Your Life."

It's hard to find the time in today's whirlwind life we live to listen to a priest talk on a video.  Let's face it, when a priest surpasses the fifteen minute mark in his homily at Mass, some parishioners start getting restless and twenty minutes might draw arguing and grumbling like the Jews in the sixth chapter of John's Gospel. But, let me tell you, after listening to this 45-minute talk, I was glad I did. By the end of it, I had tears in my eyes.  It's that powerful.

The thing is that if we can understand what a true personal relationship with Christ is meant to be, then we can start to understand what our relationship with others is meant to be, especially our spouse, whose one flesh relationship between husband and wife, St. Paul compares to that of Christ and His Church in his Letter to the Ephesians (Chapter 5).

I won't spoil it.  I just want you to take the time to watch and listen, as I did last Friday and have two more times since.

I know, I know.  We don't have time.  Yet, we take the time to fill our heads with so much mundane and mind-numbing nonsense on social media and TV every day.  I know because I spend way too many hours in front of the boob tube watching Mets games, binge-watching Vikings episodes or trying to watch Deadpool for the umpteenth time, which I'm forced to turn off whenever the kids get home (I guess the lesson that's not filtering is that if it's morally objectionable for my kids to watch, it might be less than appropriate for me to watch as well)!

So, why not take the time to fill our hearts and spirits with something that may change your life?

And please, share your thoughts with me in the comments box when you do.  Was it as powerful for you as it was for me?  I sure hope so...

Sunday, May 7, 2017

May Feelings, Elvis and the Battle of Lepanto...

"Give me an army saying the Rosary and I will conquer the world." --Bl. Pope Pius IX.

I love that video.  It was first posted on YouTube in 2009 but every time I watch it, I get inspired.

It was the brainchild of a 23-year-old Spanish filmmaker, Santiago Requejo, who says he was just sitting around with some friends listening to Elvis Presley one day, when a song came on called, "The Miracle of the Rosary."

They were shocked, not only because there was a song dedicated to the Rosary and the Blessed Mother, but because Elvis was not even Catholic!  Yet, there he was singing about the Rosary.  It got them thinking; if Elvis, who was Protestant, was honoring the Virgin Mary, then they had to do something too.

The fact that it was four days before May, the month the Church honors the Blessed Mother and asks the faithful to pray the Rosary, prompted them to produce an earlier video using 50 friends who said why they liked to pray the Rosary.  This music video came a year later and they have produced at least eight versions of May Feelings since.

The Rosary is a powerful prayer that, for me, led me to a yearning for reading the Bible.  Since the mysteries are based on passages of scripture, I was moved to read the full contexts of the passages I was praying about. Before long, I got hooked, not only on the Rosary but on the Bible!

At any rate, while Pope Pius IX's quote at the beginning of this blog may sound a little strange, it may not be far from the truth.

Even though, Europe today is being conquered by what some have referred as the "Silent Jihad," where Muslim families are having eight children for every one that Christian families have, and studies indicate that, unless this changes drastically and quickly, Muslims will be a majority in Europe during the next few decades, the continent would have already been under Muslim control since the 16th Century, if not for the Rosary!

Battle of Lepanto...
It was at the Battle of Lepanto, where a comprised fleet, organized by Pope Pius V (a popular papal name, if you haven't noticed), which included ships from the Holy See, Venice, Genoa and Spain, held off the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire, which was steam rolling through the region conquering everything in its path and had not lost a major naval battle since the 15th century.

As the powerful forces approached the small port town of Lepanto, which was strategically situated for the Ottoman Empire's push into Europe, and threatened Christianity in the entire region, the Pope implored Catholics to pray the Rosary and ask for the Virgin Mary's intersession.

In five hours, the superior Ottoman Empire was defeated and forced to retreat.  The Pope was so elated that the date was declared as the feast day of Our Lady of Victory, which later became the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (read more here)....

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Convert, Manhood and the Armor of God...

King Elendil and the Battle of the Alliance... 
Edmund Burke once said, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

Of course, in a world where masculinity is suffering under the weight of faithlessness, apathy and distraction, the increase role of women due, in part, to financial needs, no-fault divorce, women's liberation and single-mother parenting and the confusion of gender equality, where the meaning of manhood and womanhood is up for grabs, getting men to want to do "something" is becoming as elusive as finding the ring of power in Tolkien's fantastical Middle-earth.

But, the battle is never lost.  The quest continues and many good men are stepping "into the breach," as the Archbishop of Phoenix Thomas Olmsted called it in his exhortation letter to Catholic men a few years ago.  

Each year, the Archdiocese of Miami tries to do its part by bringing good men together, in hopes of inspiring them to do something.  

For the past seven years, anywhere from 350-750 men have gathered at the Annual Men's Conference, usually held at St. Mark's Church in SW Ranches, to grow in faith, bond with other men who are trying to live their faith, participate in a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Thomas Wenski, pray, reflect and listen to nationally renowned speakers such as Dr. Scott Hahn, Tim Staples, Fr. Larry Richards, Jesse Romero, Matthew Leonard and, this year, Stephen Ray.

Ray, a former anti-Catholic Baptist, who converted to the Catholic faith along with his wife in 1994, after a long and arduous internal struggle, which cost them many of friends and family in the process, has since served as a Catholic Evangelist, author and Holy Land tour guide.  
Stephen Ray and me...

He is a gifted and dynamic speaker, who I hear regularly on my favorite podcast to and from work, Catholic Answers Live and also knew from his best-selling book, Crossing the Tiber: Evangelical Protestants Discover the Historical Church, which started as a letter to his father explaining his conversion.  So, when I heard he was the guest speaker this year, I quickly signed up!    

I attended the conference with two friends from my parish and, as I have done in the past, I took notes so I could share them with you.  These are some quotes from Stephen Ray:      
“If you can change men, you can change the world.”

"God has a weak heart for any of his children who gets down on their knees and asks for help.”

“All churches in early Christianity had an altar.  Martin Luther got rid of the altar and replaced it with a podium.”

“There is no pope in Protestantism; no final word.  When Martin Luther got rid of the pope, he created a billion others who became their own pope.”

“It’s a scandal to the world that Christianity is so divided.”

“Americans choose their churches and their morals like they choose their restaurants; how they feel that day.”

“In the Bible, first came the teachings of Christ, the Magisterium, then came Tradition, passed on by the Apostles, and then came the Bible.”

“I had my wife to myself and the kids came along and I didn’t have my wife to myself anymore.”

“The American society is attacking the family more than any other culture in history.”

“The Devil wants to destroy the family.”

“God is like a GPS; every time we screw up, all we have to do is turn to Him and He’ll tell us how to get back on the right path.”

“Purgatory is the front porch of heaven.”

“A father is a reflection of God.  How kids see God is through their vision of their father.”

“The family is where you learn morals, relationships and resolving conflict.”

“You can tell something about the painter through his art.  God is an artist.”

In reference to Ephesians 5, where it states for wives to be submissive to their husbands and husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her,” Ray said, “Any husband who puts his wife’s needs over his own will never have to worry about his wife being submissive; she’s going to want to be submissive.”

“Good sex is the roadway to heaven.  God made us sexual creatures.  We help each other become holy.  But it has to be on God’s terms not ours. ”

“The family should be a factory for making saints.”

“Men became passive because the culture continuously tells us that we’re idiots.”

“The most important thing that a father can do for his kids is to love their mother.”

“We’re living in a pagan world.”

“We’re like returning to the Garden of Eden where man wants to be his own God.”

“Pluralism and relativism are the modern version of pantheism and paganism.”

“Abortion is a modern sacrificial offering to pagan deities.”

“More Christians have been martyred in the last 100 years then in the 1900 years before.”

Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

“Christians are the ones that can show the world there’s a reason to live and a reason to die.”

“We need to teach our young people what it means to be Catholic.”

“Christianity is a manly sport; no more sissy comfortable Catholicism.”

“We can get the culture turning the other way, if we swim against the tide.”...

This final one reminds me of the GK Chesterton quote, that I have used in the past, "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only the living can go against it."

Therefor, it's time to call upon the hobbit, the elf and the dwarf, put aside complacency and find Frodo Baggins and the ring because, as St. Paul wrote, "Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm." (Eph 6: 12-13)...       

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Power of the Cross...

“Unless there is a Good Friday in your life, there can be no Easter Sunday.”

Everyone goes through turmoil and struggle in life.  Some is very painful.  Yet, as difficult as things may seem at the time, only by overcoming them can we appreciate their ultimate merit...

-- Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen was a bishop, priest, theologian, best-selling author and one of the most influential Catholic evangelists in modern history.  He hosted two prime time television shows, Life is Worth Living and, later, The Fulton Sheen Program, in the 50's and 60's, where he earned two Emmys for "Most Outstanding Television Personality."  Sheen is credited with helping convert many notable figures to the Catholic faith, including actress Virginia Mayo, automaker Henry Ford II, Communist writer Louis F. Budenz and violinist Fritz Kreisler, among others.  His cause of canonization for sainthood was officially opened in 2001, and, in 2014, Pope Benedict XVI recognized him as "Venerable Servant to God," for a life of heroic virtue.

Dating the First Good Friday and Easter Sunday...

Gabriel Metsu's Crucifixion, 1660...
It's remarkable what scholarship can uncover.

Researchers can determine with confident certainty the exact date of the first Good Friday (the day Jesus was crucified and died on the Cross) and Easter Sunday.

This is how it's done:

According to the Gospels, Jesus died during the time when Caiaphas was the Jewish high priest and Pontius Pilate was governor.

Ancient records indicate that Caiaphas was high priest from AD 18 to AD 36 and Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea from AD 26 to AD 36.

Now, Luke writes that John the Baptist began is ministry "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Cesar," which would put it in AD 29.

All four gospels state that Jesus began his ministry after John the Baptist, meaning after AD 29, and that it lasted three years (the Gospel of John records three Passovers during Jesus' ministry).

We also know that Christ was crucified on a Friday, just before the Sabbath, since it was "the day of preparation" and that it happened during Passover.

So, now we have, that it was after AD 29 and before AD 36, that it happened on a Friday and it was during Passover.

The only Fridays in Passover during AD 29 and AD 36, were:
  1.  Friday, April 7, AD 30 or
  2.  Friday, April 3, AD 33
Since, we know from the gospels that Jesus started his ministry after John and that his ministry lasted three years, it couldn't have been AD 30, since there wouldn't have been enough time for three Passovers between AD 29 and AD 30.

That leaves Friday, April, 3, AD 33, meaning the Resurrection occurred on Sunday, April 5, AD 33!

Amazing isn't it?...

For more on this, including the exact time the Lord died, see Jimmy Akin's blog on National Catholic Register here....

Friday, March 31, 2017

May We Meet Again Sometime Uncle Bob...

Lived to see the day...
I can't say my wife's first impression of my great uncle from Chicago was the most innocuous one.

It was right after my Grandmother's death.  My family gathered at another of my great aunt's houses, following the Funeral Mass and interment.

Being the first of her siblings to die, since the family's arrival from Cuba, it was a difficult loss for the older generation.  Funerals have a way of reminding us of our own mortality, especially when it's a contemporary, or someone we have known our entire life. In my family’s case, that usually means alcohol is involved.

As the great W.C. Fields once said, borrowing a few words from St. Paul, "Drown in a cold vat of whiskey?  Death, where is thy sting?"

By the end of the night, my uncle (married to my grandmother's youngest sister), who tipped the scale in the 350 lbs. range, collapsed in a bathroom and couldn't get up.  

Needless to say, it quickly deteriorated into an unrehearsed scene from ¿Que Pasa USA? with people scrambling about the house, cries of “Ay Dios mio,” a couple of men trying to maneuver themselves inside the tight half bath to lift the listless man from the floor and paramedics being called in to save the day; just another night at Aunt Chela’s townhouse in Hialeah!  

My uncle was fine, of course, and, after the colorful episode, was able to get up on his own and sit down on a couch (I’m sure to the paramedics’ relief!), as his blood pressure and vital signs were checked. 

That was my wife's introduction to this bigger than life man, with the loud, booming and powerful voice, who loved to sing anywhere he went and, as a suitor for his youngest daughter, my Great Grandfather confused with the voice of Caruso (thinking the radio was on!); that's Enrico Caruso the late 19th Century Italian tenor. 

My uncle loved to laugh, tell stories, eat, drink and be merry; not to mention, spend time with family.      

Sadly, last week, at the age of eighty-eight, he went to that opera house in the sky.  He passed away as he had lived for most of his life, until his health and mobility deteriorated. He spent his last few hours singing with a male nurse who was caring for him, as his family gathered around his hospital bed.

In fact, in a touching send-off, the nurse sang him, Roberto Carlos' classic, Amigo, after my uncle had taken his last breath. 

The lyrics state:

Tu eres mi hermano del alma, realmente el amigo, Que en todo camino y jornada esta siempre conmigo, Aunque eres un hombre aun tienes el alma de niño, O Aquel que me da de su amistad su respecto y cariño... You are my soul brother; a true friend; who in every way and every day is always with me.  Even though you are a man you have a boy's soul; the one who gives me his friendship, respect and affection...

It was a fitting song for a man who loved life and was everyone’s friend, including my parents, who while dating and early into their marriage, while they lived in Cuba, loved to spend time with my Great Uncle and Great Aunt.  

A memorable Christmas gift...
My father says, he was one of the most generous men he ever met, and was always there when someone needed him, including opening his house to family and friends.  For example, he took in my great grandparents to live with him in Chicago when they came to the U.S.

As I reflected on my interactions with my uncle since his death, the first memory that comes to mind was when my family drove to Chicago for the Christmas Holiday one year in the mid-70's.  My dad, great uncle, cousin and I went to the store to get some supplies for the family and my uncle bought me a calculator!  I had never owned a calculator before.  It was nothing fancy, just a run of the mill calculator, but just the fact that he bought it for me left a lasting impression, much nicer than the impression my wife got!

Another thing I'll never forget about my uncle was that I hated shaking his hand. He had a vice-like grip and loved to squeeze my hand when he shook it, grinding my knuckles together to the point, where at least once, my eyes teared up from the pain!  He was also always asking me to pull his finger!  No, thanks!  You fooled me once, shame on you.

A gracious host and born salesman, he was a great story-teller, sometimes too great and you didn't know where the story ended and his elaborate embellishments began.  He was notorious for his outrageous tales; like the one about the shark in the hotel swimming pool that I took in, hook, line and sinker!

One year, when I was in high school, while visiting my Chicago family during the Christmas break, my cousin and I went out with his friends.  We ended up drinking a wee bit too much, me more than anyone.  When we got home, I went down to the basement and collapsed on the couch.    

Needless to say, the room started spinning, as I heard commotion upstairs; my aunt was upset that my cousin had taken me out drinking and, as I laid there with the room turning faster than my dog chasing his tail, I got sick all over myself; right there on the couch.   I immediately jumped up and rushed to the bathroom.
I remember the commotion continuing upstairs and my uncle assuring my aunt that we were fine.  Then, he came down the stairs and asked me quietly through the bathroom door, "Carlitos, are you Ok?"  "Yes," I answered, as I prayed to the porcelain god and dry-heaved.  My uncle stood outside patiently and, when I finally opened the door, he handed me a towel and a clean shirt so I could shower.

Then there was my cousin's wedding, which till this day, I have never been able to live down; it was probably the most embarrassing and selfish moment of my life (And, believe me, that’s saying a lot.  I've had plenty!).  

Not only were we late to the wedding on my account, after getting into a fight with my brother because I wanted to shave with the steam following my shower (we were two of the ushers at the wedding and the entire family had to wait for us so we could drive to the church in caravan, including my great uncle and aunt, because of our petty fight), but, later, towards the end of the night, I started a fight with the DJ and the party ended on a sour note.

Outside, as everyone was leaving, my great uncle tried to play peacemaker.  The DJ was a friend of my cousin, the bridegroom, but I refused to shake his hand, as my uncle asked; too much pride, too much ego and too much selfishness.  I have been apologizing to my cousin ever since.  Unfortunately, I should have apologized to my great uncle and great aunt as well!
In any case, his death made me realize that the older generation is almost gone.  Out of the nine siblings only two remain, my great uncle's wife and another great uncle.  There are also only three spouses left.

Death is difficult.  Although, my great uncle had been ill and they expected the worse several months ago, only to witness a miraculous recovery and an opportunity for a little more time, when the inevitable happened, it was still painful.  

All we can do, as I wrote my cousin, is hope; with the hope that only faith can provide. It's a hope that we will one day see him again, a hope that, in God's Mercy, he will attain everlasting comfort and a hope, as Catholics, that every time we receive Holy Communion, we receive him in the Body of Christ!  

Moreover, death is not the end, it's the beginning.

As J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, "End?  No, the journey doesn't end here.  Death is just another path, one that we all must take.  The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it."

Still, for the family and friends that stay behind, the void hurts greatly and I know my cousins and aunt will be grieving for some time.  

Regardless of the scandalous first impression my wife may have gotten, she later came to appreciate my great uncle, especially the day we were with him, my aunt and cousins at the beach and had to rush to the hospital when her mom called to say her father had suffered a heart attack.  We were still dating then.  My yet-to-be father-in-law passed away that hot summer day. My whole family was distraught and showed my girlfriend, at the time, compassion and empathy. It was another difficult day.   

On a more positive note, as a lifelong frustrated Chicago Cubs fan, which were one of my New York Mets’ biggest rivals for decades, and we spent lots of time arguing over who was better, at least my uncle got to see the Cubbies win the World Series last year.  It took the team 108 years to do it and he was fortunate enough to see the day!

So, farewell, Tio Roberto.  May you already be singing with God’s choir of angels, hopefully not asking any of them to shake your hand or pull your finger, and may we meet again sometime...