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.

Advertisements

Listen, Jesus Doesn’t Have To Be Nice

At the beginning of one semester as we were going over the requirements for my course, one of my students said excitedly to me, “you’re a Jesuit, that means you have to be nice.”  I immediately took the opportunity to relieve him, and the entire class of this notion, explaining that there was nothing in my job description as a teacher or as a Jesuit that required me to be nice, fair and just perhaps, but not “nice.”  If they didn’t believe me then, I think a number of them changed their mind when they got their first paper back!

Many of us, though perhaps we don’t come right out and say it, often approach Jesus in the same way, “You’re Jesus, so you have to be nice!”  And many people persist in this idea, even though it seems that we have plenty of evidence to the contrary.  Jesus wasn’t very nice to the Pharisees, and he’s not being particularly nice in our Gospel reading today.  In fact, if anything he appears to be cruel, and downright unreasonable.

Nevertheless, I think we have to avoid the temptation to dismiss this Gospel story by saying something like, “I don’t believe in that Jesus.”  If we only listened to the stories of Jesus in which we liked Jesus, or thought he was being nice, we would have to throw out or ignore a good portion of the Gospel.  But I think we can—and should—ask the question, “Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?”

It hardly seems fair the way he’s treating these people, turning his back on them, claiming he never knew them, and telling them to go away!  After all, the evidence seems to be in their favor.  They say, and we have no reason to believe they are lying: We have prophesied in your name, we have driven out demons in your name, we have done mighty deeds in your name.  We might expect Jesus to say “thank you,” not “depart from me, you evildoers.”  Why is Jesus being so unreasonable?

What seems to be the problem is that Jesus’ standard of judgment in this case is not simply concerned with what they have done, or even in whose name, but why they have done it.  Jesus is challenging the “all I have to do is be a good person” approach to life.  He is trying to cure us of the approach to life in which we really expect little of ourselves, because we are confident that in the end, Jesus will be nice to us.  Just because God is a God of love, compassion and mercy, he might be saying, doesn’t mean that God doesn’t expect much of us.  We make a mistake if we think that our life with God comes with such low expectations.

What was expected of the people that Jesus rejects?  And what is expected of us?  Jesus makes this pretty clear: that we do God’s will.  It’s not enough to just do things, even if they seem to be good things.  As Christians, we are held to a higher standard because we love God and because God loves us.  And it’s important that we listen to what Jesus is saying today, because he is explaining that following God’s will isn’t about simply “doing,” but is first about “listening.”  Those who follow God’s will, he explains, are those who “listen to these words of mine, and act on them.”  Jesus’ problem with those that have come to him is not with what they have done so much as it is the fact, as his parable suggests, that what they have done has no foundation.  They have not listened to the voice of God telling them what to do.  It may be that God did not want them to prophesy, cast out demons, or do mighty deeds.  It may be that this was someone else’s job, that God had something else in mind for them, but they never asked, and didn’t listen.

Jesus is warning against the life of “just being a good person,” a life in which we are relatively nice to others, mostly stay out of trouble, but more or less just do what we want, confident that the nice Jesus won’t hold our mistakes against us.  He is also warning against a life in which we do all kinds of “flashy” God stuff like prophesying and casting out demons without ever paying attention to what God really wants for our lives.  We can live our lives doing the kind of things God might want us to do.  Or we can instead listen to what God is asking us to do.  The challenge, of course, is that the God we are now paying attention to is going to expect a lot more of us than the God we were just counting on being nice to us in the end.  But, why, anyway, would we want to follow a God with such low expectations?

Instead, each of us needs to answer Jesus’ call today to listen and to act.  To listen to the voice of God which may be inviting us to do something extraordinary, or even, to the disappointment of some, something quite ordinary.  To risk doing great things for God, and in doing so, sometimes failing quite spectacularly, as many of the disciples did before us.  To make us of the unique gifts, talents and quirks which God has given us, and which God desires us to use for God’s glory and the good of others.

To do this we must all take the opportunity, like the one we have today in our worship, to stop our doing and start listening to what God’s desires are for our lives.  If we listen for God’s will, we will see that what God invites us to do is to become most fully what God intends us to be, as we deepen our relationship with God.  When we discover the confidence that what we are doing is not just something God might like, but something God wills, our lives are transformed.  We become more accustomed to hearing God’s voice guiding us in times of trial and decision, hope and joy.  And though our lives don’t become free of mistakes or sin, we won’t find ourselves in the end hoping for a Jesus we don’t really know to be nice to us, but we’ll be looking forward to belonging more completely to the God we’ve been listening to for so long.

Inside the Pages

Several months ago I had the opportunity to discuss Already There with Kris McGregor, of “Inside the Pages.”  The interview is now available for stream or download by clicking here.  I especially enjoyed this interview, and have been anxious to see it posted.  I hope you enjoy it too!

Kris also has a large archive of interviews with a wide variety of Catholic authors available at her site.  It’s well worth checking out, though you might be there for a while!

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.

 

Wake Up Call

If you’re an early riser, you can hear the first of a two-part interview with me on the program “Thoughts for the Week.”  The interview is with the tag team of Fr. Ray Petrucci, Fr. Mark Connolly, and Dorothy Riera.  We had a great time talking a while back, and finally it’s going to air!  Some of you might have heard of Fr. Connolly.  He was involved in the beginnings of the TV mass broadcast in New York, and spent his younger days working with Bishop Fulton Sheen on his famous TV show, “Life is Worth Living.”

The show will be broadcast this Sunday, February 13 at 7:30 am Eastern time (I told you it was early).  You can catch it on WSTC and WNLK, which can be streamed in Itunes’ radio/talk section.  You can also listen to it on their website: wstcwnlk.com.  I think it will also be archived for listening later, but I’m not certain of that.

Today’s Discussion

You can stream today’s discussion of Already There here, or download it by clicking on “hour 2” here.

They were very nice, and I love the New Orleans accent.  Sister Bridget sounds just like one of my good friends from New Orleans, who also loves to talk about “Mama”!

Much thanks to Fr. Albert & Sister Bridget!

The Cause of Christ

What’s your cause?

It seems like more and more these days Christians are becoming identified with their causes, instead of with Christ.  Sure, we can put some of the blame on the media, and those who don’t like us, but I think we also have to accept some of the blame ourselves.  I know some Christians–and you probably do too–whose Christian commitment seems all about commitment to a single cause, whether that is opposing abortion, promoting traditional marriage or trying to convince everyone they should be “real Catholics,” like them (whatever they take that to mean).  And then there are those who use causes to promote an unChristian agenda, pretending they are motivated by Christian morality, when really they are motivated by something else.  This usually manifests itself in a certain selectivity as to who they go after.  They raise the alarm about someone’s shortcomings, criticizing them for failing to sufficiently follow the Church’s teaching, or failure to support a given cause.  But often such failings are only evident in those who don’t agree with them politically or ideologically, while those who do get a pass for the same failures.  Take, for example, those on either side of the debates about whether President Obama (with his problematic views on abortion) or President Bush (with his endorsement of torture and the death penalty) should be allowed to speak at a Catholic university.  It seems to me you can only go one way or the other on this subject.  Either both should be allowed, or both should not.  Frankly, I find myself more inclined to the latter these days.  At least that would speak of some consistent Christian outlook, rather than picking and choosing based on one’s political convictions.  Sure, we can argue the relative merits of various pro-life positions, but personally I think that obscures our belief that all life is sacred, which I believe is the Christian position, no matter how you parse it.

This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in what are worthwhile causes.  And it also doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that one can only put one’s energy into a limited number of causes despite their support for and belief in various others.  Indeed, I believe that some people are especially called to be proponents of certain causes.  I’ve seen this happen with a number of my students over the years.  It’s when people start to believe that those who are dedicated to a cause other than their own cannot have a legitimate calling from God that things get out of whack, and uncharitable and even hateful behavior can ensue.  When those, for example, who are dedicated to the causes of social justice look askance at and even speak ill of those dedicated to pro-life causes, and vice-versa (and many of us know this is happening), the fabric of the Christian faith starts to tear, and suddenly Christians both answering the call of God see themselves to be on different “sides.”  And the battle is on to be the winner of the title “real Christian.”

I have found myself examining a lot lately the extent to which my causes can get in the way of my commitment to my calling.  As I interact pastorally with all varieties of people, I realize that as much as I would like them to see things as I do, to adopt my causes, the more important thing is that I help them to discover the unique vocation that God is calling them to.  And I am urged to remember that their calling and mine all find their foundation, measure and answer in our common, ultimate and most important cause–the cause of Christ.  When any cause starts to seem more important than this one, that’s when I hope with God’s help, that I can step back and reassess my priorities, so as not to lose sight of Jesus, even if that means climbing a sycamore tree like Zaccheus, or like Peter stepping out of the boat and into the sea.

On the Radio

I’m settling in at the Starbuck’s down the street from where I was scheduled to do a radio interview last night, when the phone rings.  I answer it, and my mother says, “are you alright?”  I say, “Yeah,” emphatically, wondering why she would think otherwise.  It’s about 7:05, and the show I’m scheduled to be on at 8:20 has just started.  They said something about a tornado, and “don’t worry, Father Mark is alright,” she tells me.  Not only am I alright, but I’m clueless about the storm, possibly a tornado, that ripped through New York City last night.  I’ve just walked across Manhattan, and it wasn’t even raining.  My mother reassured, I settle in to my light sandwich and chai tea, as I listen to the show to try and calm my nerves a bit, and get a feel for what they are talking about tonight.  It’s my first radio interview.  Shortly, I’ll be in the studio, and I don’t know what to expect.  I’m happy to discover that it’s “faith and culture” Thursday, where they discuss the intersections of popular culture and faith—right up my alley, and in many ways the theme of my book!  I’m feeling a bit more comfortable, and glad I wasn’t able to do the show the night before during which they answer questions about the mass (not that I have anything against that, but it just wasn’t as good a fit!).

I head over there early, and I’m glad I did, because there’s a not-so-fast and a bit complicated security procedure to get in the building, and I’ve just entered behind a band that’s playing in one of the other studios.  Off I go up to the 36th floor, where I arrive finally only about 5 minutes early.  And wait.  It’s an interesting place.  The waiting area is kind of what you might expect, a spacious advertisement for Sirius XM, with ticker-type displays showing what’s playing on various channels at that moment.  I’m ushered down past a row of studios, to the studio of the Busted Halo show.  It’s a small rectangular box, not even as big as my room, with equipment and four people.  Ruben Blades is in the next studio over.  I say hello to Father Dave Dwyer, the host, and Robyn, the producer.  She shows me the chair the microphone, and the headphones (which seems strange, because Fr. Dave is only a few feet away from me).  I announce that this is the first time I’ve done this.  Don’t be afraid to get too close to the microphone, I’m told, and just talk, the sound guy will take care of everything else.  “Did you hear about the tornado?”  Father Dave asks.  And I tell them about the phone call I’d just received.  Great way to break the ice.  And we’re off!

Sure, I was nervous, but I was surprised at how comfortable I felt.  I was a little self-conscious.  I noticed that my arms were talking too, which seemed kind of silly.  And, since there were three other people in the room to my left (Fr. Dave was to my right), I found myself instinctively looking in their direction from time to time.  As I settled into the conversation it got easier, and it seemed like we were speaking for more than 20 minutes, in a good way.

It was fun.  We got to talk about general ideas about encountering God in all things, especially in culture.  We talked about the book.  We spoke a little about my experience of my vocation.  And it just seemed like a fun chat, though I felt a little under pressure to respond quickly, and avoid “ums.”  It seemed to go OK, and it was a good way to cut my teeth for a couple other radio interviews I have coming up, where I won’t have the advantage of being in the studio.

It’s strange this new moment in my life where I find myself now speaking frequently about “my book.”  I’m hoping it remains clear to people as I go about this that as much as the focus might be on me sometimes, as with this interview, the most important thing for me—and the reason I wrote the book—is in hopes that I can help people to better connect with God.  I hope that I did so last night with my little foray into the radio world.  Today, it’s back to ordinary life, where hopefully I can do the same, outside of my book.  Thanks for reading/listening.  And if anything I’ve said or written has helped you get better connected with God, please share that with others.  You needn’t give me any credit because, really, all the credit goes to God!  Happy Friday!

Are You Sirius?

Some of you might be familiar with The Catholic Channel on Sirius XM radio.  They offer a variety of Catholic programming, including my friend Nancy’s favorites, “The Catholic Guy” and “The Busted Halo Show.”

I’ve been invited to be a guest on The Busted Halo show this Thursday night, September 16.  The show runs from 7-10 pm, and they’ll be having me on for a teensy-weensy bit of that, from about 8:20 or 8:30 pm until, at the latest, about 9:00 pm.  I’d love to have you listen to the show, and leave your comments and questions here.

We’ll be talking about my experience as a Jesuit, my ministry with young adults, and my new book for young adults in their 20s and 30s, Already There.  If you don’t have Sirius radio, you can do what I just did, and sign up for a seven-day free trial membership.  It takes about 5 minutes!  Come join us!