Friends and Contacts

Many a false move in history has been blamed on a person’s inability to know who his or her friends really were.  Most of us can point to times in our personal history when a person whom we thought to be a friend stabbed us in the back, and a person whom we may have thought only an acquaintance or whom we hesitated to let get to close to us for some reason, really came through for us in the way a friend should (and maybe in a way other “friends” failed to).  Knowing who is and who isn’t really your friend has always been tricky business.  Especially because we often deceive ourselves in this regard.  Some people might be quite surprised that you consider them a friend!

These days, with the advent of social networking, knowing who your friends are hasn’t gotten any easier.  Indeed, thanks to Facebook, the whole meaning of “friend” has been called into question.  Honestly, how many of your Facebook friends are really your friends in the more proper, intimate sense of the word?  Because of the public nature of the work that I do, for example, many of those who ask to be my Facebook friends are people whom I do not know, but are rather people who are interested in knowing more about me because of the work that I do in ministry, or because they have read my writing.  So many of my Facebook “friends” are not so much friends as “contacts.”

Yet, “contacts” is the designation of those whom I have especially identified on my cell phone as people whom I frequently call or text, or people who frequently call or text me.  And, ironically, I realize that those who make up my much smaller “contact” list are actually more likely to be intimate friends than most of the people who inhabit my “friends” list on Facebook.  Technology has managed to blur the line between those who are our friends, and those who are merely “contacts.”  Then, of course, there are those who are our Twitter “followers.”  But I’ll hold off on my reflection about that for another time.

This has got me thinking that, as strange as it might sound, that a good way to reflect on the presence of friends in our lives and, by extension, the presence of God in our lives, is by mining our cell phone “contact” list.  There’s a story, indeed a history, of interaction with those people on your contact list that is not necessarily found with people on your friends list.  So, if we want to take some time to reflect on the gift of friendship (and family, of course) in our lives, we might well do so by scrolling through our phone’s contact list, and asking questions such as: Why is that person on my contact list?  What is the story of my interaction with this person?  In my case, those on my list are family, close friends, work colleagues and fellow Jesuits, among others.  They are people who I’ve had more extended and meaningful contact with than simply accepting their friend request (another act the profundity of which has become distorted, unfortunately).  They are people I spend time with, they are people with whom I’ve worked in ministry to others, they are people I’ve known for much of my life, or are people whom I’ve known only a short time but whom I feel like I’ve known all my life because of the depth of what we have shared with each other during that time.  My history with them, for the most part, is more intimate than the description “contacts” suggests.

If I delve deeper into my phone I find an even smaller list, which tells a more detailed story.  It is the list of those in my text message history.  I don’t text just anyone.  Indeed, being a relative late-comer to the texting game, the effort it takes for me to text (I don’t have the agility of my younger counterparts) someone isn’t expended on just anybody.  It’s reserved for friends, family and colleagues with whom I have a close relationship.  These are the people with whom I’m more likely to share the unexpected joys and tragedies of my life, and with whom I’m more likely to trade requests for prayers with.  In my text-messaging companions, I find another level of intimacy.  I can get a lot of consolation, and be reminded of my need to pray for the needs of my family and friends by reviewing my history of text messages with the people who inhabit this more exclusive portion of my cell phone, and my life.

The phone of course, is only a place to start.  It is a spark to memory of what that person means to you, the experiences you have shared together, and what you hope lies in your future with them.  It is also an invitation to move beyond the technological and virtual world, to call them and make plans to be together, to continue your life with them in person as more than just contacts, but as friends.  Our computers and phones might serve to help us to discover who our intimates are, but deep friendships are built in the moments we spend in each others’ presence, even if sometimes spent more in silliness than seriousness.  Friendships are built on both.  Indeed, our willingness to be silly and even stupid with someone else is a sign of intimacy, it means that I’m comfortable being myself with that person, because our history together, both “virtual” and personal, has shown me my friend.

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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.

Popular Demand

It’s been nearly eight months since I started up this new blog on WordPress.  During that time, I’ve written about sixty posts.  It’s hard to know what will catch people’s attention, and because I get very few comments, I’m not always sure what speaks to people and what doesn’t.  But one of the most interesting things that has happened is with regard to a post I wrote rather early on, last September, called “Which Team Are You On?” (click to have a look).  It was a post put up rather hastily, based on a homily that I’d preached that day, in which I used talk of “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob” as a means of illustrating a point about that day’s readings.  To date, it’s the most read post on my blog, with visits to that page nearly every day!  I don’t know if the people that end up there leave disappointed, but it’s got me thinking about something I already think a lot about–how to get the message of Jesus out to people who wouldn’t normally hear it, or be receptive to it.  I’m willing to get on the Team Edward or Team Jacob bandwagon, if that’s what it takes!

This has got me thinking that somehow engaging “trending” topics on Christian blogs might be a more effective means of evangelization than a lot of the myopic infighting which takes place via many blogs.  Sure, many of those blogs get lots of hits, but mainly those are from people who want to get into the fight!  And perhaps we should be thankful that those who don’t normally hear the message of Jesus don’t end up there, because they might get a poor representation of what the message of Jesus is really about.  But I digress . . .

I’m starting to think about how such a discovery might lead to a more effective strategy for reaching, for want of a better word, the “unchurched.”  What other topics might garner such traffic from a more “non-religious” crowd?  Stay tuned, as soon I might try out some different strategies, to see how they pan out (sifting for gold!).  And I know I said I don’t get many comments, but I would welcome comments, e-mails or feedback from anyone who knows of such strategies that are working, or may have some ideas about what might work.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the future of the Church lies in evangelization, which will require us to go in new and creative directions (and perhaps some arm-twisting for us often reticent Catholics), so that we can be sure we’re not just preaching to the choir, but also to those who belong to other “teams.”

A Jesuit’s Path to Priesthood

The U.S. Jesuits have kicked off a video series, following one Jesuit on his “Path to Priesthood.”

Jesuit deacon Radmar Jao shares about his vocation, his past life as an actor and his thoughts as he anticipates his ordination as a priest this June.  Check it out, and stay tuned for further updates as the day approaches!:

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!

In Conversation about My Vocation & Writing

Fordham University has produced a series of video interviews with Jesuits at Fordham entitled “Jesuits in Conversation.”  You can now watch my approximately thirty-minute interview, in which I discuss my vocation, my ministry and my writing, in particular the then forthcoming book, Already There.  You can access the video, as well as interviews with various other Jesuits, by clicking here.

 

Thoughts For the Week, part 1

Part 1 of my interview about spirituality for young adults, and my book, which aired this past Sunday, is now available at Spirituality For Today.  You can find the link on their home page, along with links to articles and other interviews, or you can go directly to the interview by clicking here.  This was a panel interview with three interviewers, so there is a good variety of questions and comments from them, as well as from me.

Twenty-Somethings and the Church

If you’re near NYC or can get here at the end of January, this conference featuring Fr. James Martin, Donna Freitas, and many other fine speakers would be well worth attending.  I’ll be there too!

You can find more information at the conference website.

Twenty-Somethings and the Church
LOST?

FORUM  |  Friday, 28 January 2011 | 6–8 p.m.
CONFERENCE  |  Saturday, 29 January 2011 | 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m.

Pope Auditorium | Lincoln Center Campus
Fordham University | 113 West 60th Street

Have Young Catholics Lost Their Way?
Has the Church Lost Twenty-Somethings?
Has Our Culture Lost its Soul?

Twenty-somethings raised as Catholics are swelling the ranks of the religiously unaffiliated, yet many hold traditional beliefs about God and express spiritual yearnings and the desire to serve. This forum and conference will examine their fraught and often tenuous relationship with the Church.

Participants will explore the data, issues and dilemmas, as experienced in the cultural, economic and religious contexts of twenty-somethings—from sexuality to spirituality.

The speakers include leading experts and practitioners: James Davidson, Robert Putnam, Melissa Cidade, David Campbell, Carmen Cervantes, Donna Freitas, Colleen Carroll Campbell, Tom Beaudoin, Rachel Bundang, Bill McGarvey, Marilyn Santos, Tami Schmitz, James Martin, S.J., Rev. Robert Beloin, and twenty-somethings themselves.


FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC
All are welcome to attend the Friday forum, the Saturday conference, or both.