Thanks for “Buddies”

My friend Mike Hayes has written a nice response to my “Friends and Contacts” post, and in doing so named me a recipient of one of his Lenten “50-Day Giveaway” gifts.  THANKS, MIKE!!!

The gift will certainly find pride of place on my desk, and is rather appropriate to the course I’m teaching this semester on Catholicism and Popular Culture in America.  The gift is a “buddy Christ,” which you might remember from the movie Dogma.  This week in class we’ll be discussing the movie The Exorcist, but we will finish out the semester discussing Dogma.  So, I’ll definitely bring my gift along with me to class that day!

Mike is a good friend, and a great disciple to young adults across the nation!  He’s way up there in Buffalo these days, so I don’t see enough of him.  Still, I thank God for the gift of his friendship.  And, yes, he is among the privileged few who appear in my text-messaging inbox!

He blogs at “Googling God,” which you’ll find a link to in my Blogroll, and a feed from down below that.

THIS ALSO SERVES AS A CHANCE FOR ME TO WISH A BLESSED EASTER TO ALL MY ‘BUDDIES’!

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Approaching Easter

As we get closer to Easter, I’m reminded of a post I wrote about two years ago, on my previous blog.  I thought I’d share it with you as we look forward to this Easter.

When I think of Easter, I remember Mayo Kikel.
Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002.  She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there.  She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day.  I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission.  When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.
This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.  We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed.  But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work.  It was what she lived for.  And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day.  None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.
As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor.  I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day.  She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them.  What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song.  Now this was not without its risks.  Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence.  We talked about this, but she was determined.  So we made plans.
When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.”  The music began.
The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus.  And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends.  Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb.  Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead.  They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened.  In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive and I’m forgiven.  Heaven’s gates are open wide!”  “He’s alive!”  “He’s alive!”  The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!”  And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears.  Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.
We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day.  When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead.  Things were made new for me that day.  No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again.  They had stepped up when it was most important.  And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.
Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us.  But I will never forget her.  Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.

Remember My Voice

The Saturday night mass at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress was the end of the congress for me, since I had to fly home the next day.  And, at the end, I found myself very moved and even teary-eyed.  This had nothing to do with the fact that it was the end, or even the quality of the liturgy (which was very good), but with the man sitting behind me.

It had been a busy day in a tiring weekend.  Earlier, I’d taken the tab out of the collar of my clerical shirt, and had even found someplace to catch a brief nap.  So, I was sporting the casual, open-collar priest look.  When it came time for the sign of peace, I turned to my friends sitting next to me, and then to those behind me.  I had heard  the groanings of attempts at speech earlier in the mass, and had wondered at their source.  And here he was, a large, somewhat disheveled man who, upon seeing me turn to him, appeared very distressed.  He tried to speak, but what came out was only nonsense, and he kept pointing to his collar.  I quickly realized that the source of his distress seemed to be my open collar.  Clearly, he recognized that I was a priest who was missing something.  I tried to reassure him, even talk to him, but I could not bridge the communication gap.  Eventually, he pulled a collar tab out of his own pocket and I, as if to reassure him, took mine out of my pocket and showed it to him, but he still seemed agitated.  I looked to the people on either side of him, thinking that one of them might be a caretaker, but he seemed to be alone.

I turned back to the mass and began to wonder: Was this man a priest?  Was that what he was trying to say?  I, too, am a priest.  Or was it that I was somehow not living up to expectations by having removed my collar?  I began to think that he was a priest, though I could not be sure.  But in imagining that he was a priest, I began to consider what it might be like to be a priest without a voice.  Attending this joyous liturgy, and even mouthing some of the words of the mass to myself while doing so, I started to consider what it might be like if my voice were suddenly taken away.  What a privilege it is to “say” the mass, and what grief it would cause if that were taken way.  And suddenly I realized in a quite overwhelming way that surely there are hundreds if not thousands of priests who because of a stroke, Alzheimer’s or some other illness are no longer able to speak, or to do so intelligibly.  And like the man behind me, perhaps a priest, they heroically press on, attending mass burdened with the sadness of not being able to say it, and perhaps seeing other priests like myself who don’t seem to appreciate the privilege enough.

I restored my collar, out of deference to this man—priest or not—who seemed to be concerned (some thought it was because I was about to receive communion from Cardinal Mahony, but I must admit that this thought hadn’t even occurred to me).  I found myself being even more deeply moved by this man’s plight, whether real or imagined, as I received communion, and took time to reflect afterwards.  I determined that I would ask the man, and hopefully be able to discover whether he was indeed a priest.  And, if so, I  decided, Iwould ask for his blessing.  I found myself verging on tears as I reflected on this, and continued to enjoy the splendor and music of the Eucharist we celebrated.  I found myself wanting to reach out to this man, to know who he was, to somehow get past his broken voice and find a connection.  Mass ended, I turned, and he was gone.  I’ll never know if he was, in fact, a priest, but he was to me that day in the truth of my imagination, and in the compassion which it inspired.

I was disappointed and further saddened by his absence, but I determined to remember him when once again my lips gave voice to the mass, a voice that he helped me to appreciate, that I might lose one day too.

L.A. Week: Countdown to Congress

After a pretty busy February spent giving talks and retreats in various places, I’ve finally reached my Spring Break vacation, of sorts.  I’m about halfway through my week in L.A. which has been a great time to reconnect with family and friends and prepare myself for what promises to be the somewhat overwhelming experience of my first Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, which some refer to as “Catholic Disneyland.”

My brother lives and works here as the Art Director for the show Parks & Recreation (my mother was somewhat taken aback a couple of years ago when he said his new job was with Parks & Recreation!  She hadn’t heard of the show.)  I spent the first part of my trip with he, his wife, and their three children.  They have twins–a boy and a girl–who are, as my nephew repeated more than once, “6 and three quarters” years old, and another four year old daughter.  The weekend was a reminder of the pros and cons of family life, as we moved from one sporting event to another.  There was T-ball with my nephew, where I was drafted as a third base coach, and practice for the two girls’ soccer teams that my brother coaches.  One of the Moms asked me, “Has he always been so wonderful with kids.”  And while this was the first time I’d seen him coach, I had to admit that he’s pretty darn good!  I’m also proud to see what a great father my little brother has turned out to be!  Saturday was soccer practice, and Sunday was the soccer games, and I had the joy of seeing my youngest niece score a goal!

She scores!

It was a bit of a surprise, because just minutes before she didn’t seem so into the game!  This was true of most of the girls on the team, whose interest seemed to wax and wane throughout the game.  Sustained competitive intensity is probably not so a common a trait for most four year old girls.

While all this was going on, I also provided entertainment–some voluntary, some not–for the niece and nephew who was not playing at the time, at one point simultaneously pitching balls to my nephew and kicking the soccer ball with my niece.  It was wonderful to spend time with them, as I don’t see them as often as I’d like, but also exhausting!  A reminder that I really need to get into shape!

I also had a wonderful dinner last night with my friend TerriAnn, who asked if she could bring her boyfriend, Ronnie Kovic, along.  I wrote back to her that I would be delighted if he could come and, isn’t his name the same as the guy from Born on the Fourth of July?  Not only was it the same name, but also the same guy!  It was wonderful to see TerriAnn, who I always visit when I’m in L.A., and to meet Ron, who is a lovely man, and who doesn’t look anything like Tom Cruise! 🙂  It was a privilege to meet a man who has really struggled with great hardship in his life, but has now achieved such great peace.  And he an TerriAnn are such a lovely match.

TerriAnn & Ron

We talked for hours, about all sorts of things.  Ron quizzed me on what I’ve been doing, I of course asked him about his experiences (and since I’m a movie nut, it was also exciting to be sitting with a Golden Globe winner!), and I got caught up with TerriAnn, who I hadn’t seen since my last visit to L.A.  How wonderful it was to see my friend, who lost her husband some years ago, to be so happy with someone new!  What a blessing.

All this is a prelude to the L.A. Congress which I hope will be an enriching experience, and also an opportunity to spread the news about my book, and to see a lot of friends and colleagues from around the country who I don’t get to see as often as I’d like!  I’ve also volunteered to be available for Confessions, which is always such a great privilege.

If you’re coming to the L.A. Congress, look for me at the booths of the Jesuits, Charis ministries or Saint Anthony Messenger Press (where you can also buy my book!).  I’ll report more on the Catholic Disneyland experience in a future post!

Listen In

I had a wonderful interview today on the Catholic Radio network, Relevant Radio.  Wendy Wiese was a gracious an enthusiastic host, and even gave me a little assist with my first radio blessing!

You can listen to the show on their website archive.  Go to the September calendar, and click on my name which appears on September 30.  You can stream it, or download the mp3 to your computer (takes about 3 minutes).  If you have a chance to listen, I’d love to have you post your thoughts or questions in the comments for this post!

School Year Blessings

My friend Steve Silver, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Lebanon, NH offered the children of his parish a great way to kick off the new school year–The Blessing of the Backpacks!  I have to say I kinda like the idea.  A simple way to remind students that God is involved in the ordinary events of their lives.  They even carry their blessing around every day!  Way to go, Steve!  Check out his blog, the Mainline Minister, which you can find on my blogroll.

Maybe I should bless my backpack?