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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.

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...  

Thomas Merton on Living For the Moment...

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” 

-- Thomas Merton (1915-1968), priest, monk, writer, theologian and social activist, is considered among the most influential Catholic authors of the twentieth century.  He was admittedly agnostic, at best, during his youth, living in Bermuda, France and England with his artist father, after his mother died when he was about 6.  His father died ten years later.  He had a zeal for life, jazz and writing and entered Cambridge University in England, where he lived a life of debauchery, and is said to have fathered a child during one of his encounters.  He left England and enrolled at Columbia University in 1935, where he became editor of the school paper.  It was there that, in his quest for truth and meaning, that he was introduced to Catholic books.  After years of reading and internal struggle, he entered the Catholic Church in 1938. Shortly, thereafter, he started to feel a calling to the priesthood and more specifically to live a life of monasticism as a Trappist monk.  After an initial rejection, he entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky in 1941, where he spent the rest of his life until his accidental death in 1968, while at a East-West monastic conference, which included the Dalai Lama.  He was 53.  During his life, he wrote over 70 books, including his autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, which is one of the most profound books I have ever read, sold millions of copies and been translated in at least 15 languages.     

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Life, Baseball and My Son...

The Sandlot...
"He's trying to kill us!" my nine-year-old son said exasperated, after his coach made the team run two laps following their game last weekend, even though they won!

I couldn't help but start laughing.  "No, seriously Dad," he insisted, as we walked towards the car.  He always uses "seriously" now when trying to make a point.  "He's really trying to kill us."

"Buddy, that's what coaches do," I exclaimed.

The coach was upset about their sloppy play, including my son getting picked off second with the old hidden ball trick.

"They break the team down," I continued, "then build them up again.  That's what they do in the army, you know."

"Yeah, but those are soldiers, Dad!  We're kids!"

Good point, but I pressed on, "Buddy, he's trying to build character.  He's old school.  By breaking you down and building you up again, the team grows closer together and you accomplish things that you may not have accomplished otherwise.  Don't you remember the movie, Remember the Titans?"  

"That coach was nothing compared to our coach," he maintained.

"Buddy, that coach made them run until they threw up.... and he wouldn't let them drink water!"

My son is a bit melodramatic.  He gets it from his mom's side of the family, my emotions and my brother's acting aside!

At any rate, in one of his favorite movies, The Sandlot, James Earl Jones' character, Mr. Mertle, a former professional Negro League player, who knew Babe Ruth (Yes, The Sultan of Swat, The King of Crash, The Colossus of Clout, The Great Bambino!) and went blind when he was hit in the head by a fastball (before helmets!), says "Baseball was life!  And I was good at it... real good...."

While I wasn't as good as Mr. Mertle, for the greater part of my existence, from the time I was nine-years-old, like my son, until about ten years ago, when I last played in a men's league at the age of forty-three, baseball was life for me. Although, my wife may argue it still is!

I often tell my kids that baseball is like life and the conversation with my son reminded me of the first line of the best-selling book, The Road Less Traveled, which states, "Life is difficult." And, so is baseball, especially when you have a coach yelling at you and making you run when you're already tired!

They say the hardest thing to do in sports is to hit a baseball.  A ball coming in at 90-95 miles per hour, gives a hitter about .4 seconds (yes, that's four tenths of a second!) to see the ball, decide whether to swing his bat and connect.  That doesn't even take into account that you have to square the ball with the bat just right and you have to hit it where nobody is standing or can make a play!

Baseball is a game of futility much like life.  For the most part, you have to fail a lot before you succeed. In fact, the best hitters in the game succeed only three out of every ten times at bat.  And, just when you think you have it all figured out, everything goes to pot.

You can be riding high on the hog in a hot hitting streak, feeling like the Geico piglet with his head out the window, holding a pinwheel, and yelling, "Wee, wee, wee," and the next day, you're in a slump and feeling like you're running in place in a pool of mud, pushing a riffle up and down over your head, as someone is wetting you with a garden hose, and you're crying, "I got nowhere else to go.  I got nowhere else to go...," ala Zack Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman.

Now. every time I say, "baseball is like life," my son shoots back, "No it isn't!"

Hope springs eternal; at spring training with the kids....
He doesn't understand what I mean, which is probably lost on my wife and daughters as well, although our oldest is growing in her passion for the game.  Maybe, she'll be a future Doris Kearns Goodwin, writing books and appearing on documentaries discussing her love for the game that her father taught her to love.  

Anyway, what I mean to say is that, while it can be said about other teams sports, baseball, more acutely than possibly anything else, resembles life itself; one, because of it's long and grueling season, which starts in Spring Training in February and ends with the World Series in November. You can have good days and bad days but there's always a chance for redemption tomorrow.  Two, it's deliberate pace and three, it's timelessness; both in duration (a game always lasts until somebody wins) and history, set upon the canopy of American culture.

There's nothing I want more than for my son to first, love God and the Church but then, to love and play baseball, that simple, yet complex, game played on a clay infield diamond surrounded by green grass (Of course, there may be a wife and kids, a vocation and family to consider but baseball can come a close third or fourth!).

However, at this point in his life, it's only a burgeoning interest at best.

After several failed attempts at playing, where he would be interested one day and lukewarm the next, and would then say he didn't want to play anymore, even though I have never pressured him about playing, I decided to take a harder stance, thanks to the help of my parents, who take him to practice, and told him he had to play.

I signed him up to play in a league without knowing a coach or him knowing any teammates.

There were two main reasons.  I don't want him to be one of those kids that stays at home playing video games or Wii all day, which he most definitely could do, if we let him.  And, I wanted him to learn to be part of a team.  Unfortunately, it's a trait that many people lack nowadays.

He played coach-pitch several times with a good friend of mine in different teams but it was obvious that his interest was tepid and I wanted to change the environment to see if it would make a difference.  

He ended up playing for the academy team of the league.  At first, I thought he was going to reject having to go to practice twice a week and playing a game or two on weekends.  To add to my concern, his coach is a bit fiery and animated, which is something he never experienced before.

But, a funny thing happened.  He started making friends, having fun and, while he is still struggling as he learns to play kid-pitch for the first time, and, as you can see, he is not a fan of the coach, he is actually growing in appreciation for the game; from collecting baseball cards, to watching Mets games on TV, to driving his mom and sisters crazy by throwing a rubber ball against his bed and catching it, to asking me to work with him on weekends when he's not playing (like my father did with me) or having me get my catcher's mitt from storage so that he can learn to catch (he's still a bit scrawny for the position and I told him he needed to beef up!).

Baseball takes sacrifice, discipline, humility, mental and physical fortitude, hard work, patience and perseverance.  Then again, anything in life that's worth doing takes sacrifice and hard work as well. But, like anything, it comes down to loving it and having fun.  

Come to think of it, it's a lot like living the Christian life, which is about sacrifice, self-denial and picking up our crosses everyday and following Christ; sometimes, to places we may not want to go, and falling, but getting back up, and in the case of Catholics, going to Confession, picking up our cross again and starting over; all with love and joy in our heart.

My son still has a long way to go in baseball, in life and in his faith but I'm encouraged.  The other day, he made a great catch, dropping to one knee and snatching a line drive to center-field.  It came on the heels of a near meltdown after striking out.

Hopefully, he'll get it and one day, despite thinking his coach is out to kill him (And wanting to channel the Ham Porter from The Sandlot inside him, by saying, "You're killing me Smalls!"), love will prevail...

Monday, February 27, 2017

The Measure of Love...

The Gentleman Saint...
"The measure of love is to love without measure." 

 -- St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622),  17th Century Bishop of Geneva, and Doctor of the Church, who as a priest was known for his patience and gentle approach to quell religious division after the Protestant Reformation.  He was a lawyer by trade and, after convincing his father to allow him to enter the priesthood, he was just as successful in sharing the Catholic faith and converting Calvinists in Geneva.  He would preach to them and hand out pamphlets that he would write himself.  St. Francis is said to have returned tens of thousands back into the Catholic fold.  The "brilliant apologist," as some have described, was known for practicing his axiom, "A spoonful of honey attracts more flies than a barrelful of vinegar."  Well recognized for his book, Introduction to the Devout Life, which is hailed by Catholics and many Prostestants alike, he also wrote, A Treatise on the Love of God, and hundreds of pamphlets, which were later assembled as, The Catholic Controversy, and letters addressed to the laity.  Along with St. Jane Frances de Chantal, he founded the women's Order of the Visitation of Holy Mary.  He was canonized in 1665 by Pope Pius IX 43 years after his death.  His feast day is celebrated by the Church on January 24th...   

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Marriage, Love and Shattered Glass...

"At least you didn't break the wine bottles," my wife said in an irritated tone.

"Well, I guess, I did something right," I answered coyly, after shattering a glass punch bowl with the seat of our car when I slid it back to get behind the wheel.  The four bottles of wine next to it were not touched!

"No," she shot back, "You just didn't do more wrong!"

I love my wife.  She's very pragmatic and, as you can see, isn't afraid to tell me how she feels. Whether I want to hear it or not!

In this case, it was probably not an apropos way to begin a marriage retreat that we were leading but such is the reality of married life.  You take the good with the bad, although, for the most part, at least among the couples we are friends with, the good far outweighs the bad.

The great English writer and philosopher, G.K. Chesterton put it into perspective when he wrote, "Marriage is an adventure, like going to war."

I'm sure he meant its complexities; sometimes you're head over heels in love.  Sometimes you're at each other's throats.  Other times, you're side-by-side in the trenches fighting enemies from abroad, like your children!  While, occasionally, there's a little bit of both.  And, when you get two people with strong characters, like my wife and me together, you never know.

Nobody says marriage is easy (at least nobody who has ever been married!), but it's the most rewarding gift that God gave man and woman; a chance to participate in His creation and love through bonds of family.

A young couple from our parish recently lost twin babies at birth.  Certainly, there's nothing more difficult for a parent to have to endure than the loss of a child, and these two were the couple's first children, which had been long awaited.

The infants just lived long enough for a priest to Baptize them after an emergency Cesarean Section. It was a surreal scene, according to those who witnessed it.  

Pain and anguish are difficult to get through but having faith and a loving spouse by your side makes it almost bearable.

In a recent social media post, the husband and father wrote, "There's a unique peace - and dare I say joy - from the certain knowledge that my children never knew evil; that sin, pain and suffering will always be foreign to them; that they will spend eternity in the company of angels and saints, with our Lord and Blessed Mother for best friends...."

That wisdom and certainty derives from faith.  A faith that can move mountains and is centered on love, which fosters hope.  And, hope, as Chesterton also wrote, "means hoping when everything seems hopeless."

I'm sure their spiritual foundation and reliance on each other, will help them overcome their grief and move towards their next adventure.

Then, there's our neighbors across the street.  A young couple who months before their first baby was born was hit with a Dwight "Doc" Gooden curve ball, a.k.a. Uncle Charlie, in life.

The husband went to ride his bike one morning and hours later, police showed up at the expectant mother's doorstep to tell her he had been involved in an accident and was in a coma.

He survived but, for the past eleven months, she has been dealing with a newborn baby daughter and a husband who, until a few weeks ago, was totally immobile.  How's that to start your married life?

The husband is now getting up and learning to walk again but they have a long road ahead.

It's easier to love when things are going smoothly but much more challenging when rough times come our way.  But, rough times are part of marriage and you can go with the culture and take the easy way out, saying "I didn't sign up for this," or you can tighten your belt strap and say, "bring it on."

Unfortunately, we live in a throwaway society, where people throw things away instead of trying to fix it.

Notwithstanding, marriage is not something you throw away because it's broken.  It wasn't made to be.  God said, "It is not good that man be alone," and so He made man a helper in life and, when a man leaves his father and mother, he clings to his wife and the two become one flesh and are bound spiritually forever.    

I've heard it said that there's a part of you in every intimate relationship you've ever had because the union of a man and woman was always meant to be eternal.

Moreover, as I often tell my children, love is not a feeling.  It's a choice; a commitment.  Feelings come and go. A commitment endures forever.

Man and woman are made to complement and complete each other. All you have to do is look at our bodies to see that reality.  However, in that complement and completion, we are also made very different; not just physically but in the way we think, the way we handle problems, the way we approach situation, and often those differences lead to strife.

But, strife is not insurmountable, as long as there is love, a.k.a. commitment, just as the young couple in our parish and our neighbors across the street apparently have.  And love, as St. Paul writes, "Bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,."  including shattered glass...

Monday, January 23, 2017

When Truth is Subject to Opinion...

"Relativism means everything is up for grabs; who's to say?... When there isn't common core values and truths that we all agree on and look to, you start to find that the one who wins the day is the one who shouts the loudest, has the biggest megaphone, has the most power, (or) is the richest... It's a struggle for power rather than, let's reason and think what's best for the human person."  

Msgr. Charles Pope; priest, teacher, retreat leader, spiritual director, blogger and published writer.  He is a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC., where he conducts weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House and writes a weekly column for Our Sunday Visitor.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Bad Reading, Mets Baseball and Mass Appeal...

Somewhere during the priest's mind-numbing rendition of an unemployed third-rate actor reading the obituaries from a local newspaper, I started to wonder, "What is he doing? When is he going to stop reading and get on with his homily?"

Gotta find a spot for Jose Reyes... 
Then, my mind started drifting even further, "What are the Mets going to do with Jose Reyes if David Wright plays third, Asdrubal Cabrera plays short and Neil Walker plays second?  Then again, what are they going to do with Michael Conforto with Cespedes, Bruce, Lagares and Granderson in the same outfield? Did I forget to give my son his medication this morning?  No, I remembered."

The priest continued, "In the second reading, St. Paul writes...."  At that point, I realized he was not going to stop.  That was his homily!

The poor clergyman, probably in his late 50's, was obviously not comfortable speaking freely in English.  His pronunciation was not bad but he probably felt he was doing the parishioners a favor.  It failed miserably, at least to me.

It wasn't that his writing lacked substance, it was just that he was reading!  It had no life, no color, no anecdotes and nothing to make it relatable.  It was as dryly delivered as a Steven Wright comedy routine, sans the humor!

It's hard to remember the last time I felt that type of disconnect during a homily; probably, before my re-version to the faith over ten years ago, when I would spend way too many masses thinking about the Mets' lineup, what I was going to have for lunch or the crying baby in the back of the church. Why doesn't his mom shut him up, already! I'm trying to figure out the trade or recall options the Mets' have in their minor league system! 

We were on a field trip to St. Augustine with my son's 4th Grade class.  A few of us snuck away from the tour itinerary to catch the early Sunday morning Mass.

I love to visit different Catholic parishes when I travel.  It's mind-boggling to think that the same Mass celebrated at any given city is the same Mass that my wife and daughters would partake in at home that day, my sister-in-law and her family would experience in London or anywhere else around the globe.  It is truly what first century bishop, St. Ignatius of Antioch, meant when he referred to the Church as "Catholic," which means universal.

Learning about history and life...
I also like to teach my kids that no matter where we are, our obligation to God continues, even on vacation.  There's no vacation from God!

Anyhow, it was a beautiful and, apparently, affluent parish (their bulletin had fourteen full-color pages!) with a visibly active bilingual congregation, three priests, three deacons and almost 50 ministries (They were holding a ministries fair on the day of our visit), but their Spanish-speaking priest was celebrating the English Mass and it didn't translate well, pardon the pun.

While, I wouldn't say the homily was a total disaster, it did remind me of a conversation I had with my brother a few years ago.  He said that some priests were so uninspiring that it made him think twice about going to Mass sometimes.    

It's one of the reasons so many Protestant megachurches are filled to the brim; people looking for entertainment, fellowship and excitement.  They want to feel part of something but want to be attracted by charismatic preaching (many times that appeal to their taste in theology and philosophy of life!), lively music and vibrant social opportunities.

However, to me, as one of our parish priests put it recently, "Church is not about me and what I can get.  It's about Him and what I can give."  Let's face it, the least we can do is give God an hour a week of our time!

The Bread of  Life...
And, yet, we do receive more than we can ever imagine at Mass.  We receive the Eucharist; the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ; the same Christ who walked the earth two thousand years ago, performing miracles and dying for our sins; the same Christ who we call God and pray to; and the same Christ, and God of the Universe, who humbles Himself to feed his flock through the Bread of Life, otherwise known as "Daily Bread" we pray for in the Lord's Prayer.

Moreover, during the liturgy, we are actually drawn to the foot of the cross in first century Palestine to partake in the "once and for all" sacrifice of the Son to the Father.

As one of my favorite authors, Dr. Scott Hahn, writes in his book, The Lamb's Supper, the Mass is the where heaven and earth meet.  It is the closest we'll get to heaven this side of the grave.  It is where the entire Communion of Saints; those in heaven, including our loved ones, those on the way to heaven and those existing on the planet come together (in the Eucharist).

Hence, as I sat there in the pew that Sunday morning, being lulled by the arid reading, in a strange but all too familiar surrounding and thinking of Reyes' and Conforto's plights in the New York Mets' lineup, as I kept my son from laying his head on my lap, I regathered my thoughts and was able to focus on who and what I was there for...

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Peter Kreeft: More Heroes Needed...

"Our culture has filled our heads but emptied our hearts, stuffed our wallets but starved our wonder.  It has fed our thirst for facts but not for meaning or mystery.  It produces "nice" people, not heroes."

-- Peter Kreeft from Jesus-Shock.  Kreeft is a philosophy professor at Boston College and The King's College in New York.  He has authored over 75 books, is a husband (one wife), father of four, grandfather of five, and public speaker.  He was a Calvinist, who regarded the Catholic Church "with the upmost suspicion" but when asked by a professor to investigate the claims of the Church to be the one founded by Jesus Christ, he was persuaded by the writings of the early Christians.  He applied to the Church the C.S. Lewis trilemma on Jesus, either He was a liar, a lunatic, or the Lord (either the Church was "the most arrogant, blasphemous and wicked claim imaginable, if it is not true, or else that she is just what she claims to be.") and was convinced by the latter.  He converted in the late '90's, well after being established as one of the most respected Christian writers of modern times.

Check out his conversion story here.