"My most recent analysis ... reveals a striking trend: A generation of conservative young priests is on the rise in the U.S. Church." - Fr. Andrew Greeley, in the article, "Young Fogeys", from The Atlantic Magazine. January, 2004.
On today's Feast day, I think of Bishop Ahr High School, located in my diocese, which was "St. Thomas Aquinas High School" until the early 1980s. At the time, Bishop (now Cardinal) McCarrick wanted to change the name to honor recently retired Bishop George Ahr of the Trenton Diocese, in whose diocese the school was until Metuchen split from Trenton in 1981. The story is told that, when Bp. McCarrick proposed the name change to Bp. Ahr, he was dead-set against it. He had visions of newspapers' sports sections' headlines that would someday read, "Bp. Ahr defeats Immaculate Conception", and that wouldn't do for a man who chose the episcopal motto, "Mary, my hope".
Sure enough, on the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, what's the headline in the Star Ledger?
"Bishop Ahr defeats McCarrick"
I always knew who'd win that fight.
Anyway, most people only know of Aquinas because of seeing him in a stained glass window or a statue in a church. If this is you, the English Dominican blog, "Godzdogz" has a great article about St. Thomas you'll like.
Today's readings all have to do with God's presence.
In the 1st Reading, the assembled Israelites stood and listened attentively, then bowed down and prostrated themselves, as Ezra read from the law of God. After 70 years of exile, those who were children when they left their homeland, along with those who were born in exile and had only heard what adults had told them about their promised land, were now "home". Clearly, they understood that the book of the law was, for them, God's presence among them. Even today, where is the tabernacle in synagogues? Right smack dab in the center, prominent, on a raised platform (no "side chapels around the back" for Jews when it comes to the תנ"ך).
In the Gospel, Jesus has returned to the Synagogue in Nazareth, a place he must have known well. He reads Isaiah's prophecy of, well, himself. He reads, then sits in the chair (a sign of authoritative teaching) and tells the assembly that, today, they have seen Isaiah's prophecy fulfilled. They were in the presence of God, whether or not they comprehended it at that moment.
Jumping back to the 2nd Reading, St. Paul gives us that beautiful "Body of Christ" analogy. If we can recognize Christ's presence in the Word (we stand for the Gospel, we pray that the words may permeate our mind, lips, and heart, and the responses go from the 3rd person "Thanks be to God" to the 2nd Person "Glory to YOU, Lord", and, "Praise to YOU, Lord Jesus Christ") and presence on the altar or in the Tabernacle, only then can we make the jump to his presence in everyone we know (and even those we don't).
Now, if you want to read the Pope's message, click HERE.
Finally, if you don't want to read the whole message, here are excerpts:
"Priests stand at the threshold of a new era: as new technologies create deeper forms of relationship across greater distances, they are called to respond pastorally by putting the media ever more effectively at the service of the Word."
"Yet priests can rightly be expected to be present in the world of digital communications as faithful witnesses to the Gospel, exercising their proper role as leaders of communities which increasingly express themselves with the different 'voices' provided by the digital marketplace."
"Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis."
"Yet priests present in the world of digital communications should be less notable for their media savvy than for their priestly heart, their closeness to Christ. This will not only enliven their pastoral outreach, but also will give a 'soul' to the fabric of communications that makes up the 'Web'."
"To priests in particular the new media offer ever new and far-reaching pastoral possibilities, encouraging them to embody the universality of the Church’s mission, to build a vast and real fellowship, and to testify in today’s world to the new life which comes from hearing the Gospel of Jesus, the eternal Son who came among us for our salvation."
The Gospel reading at today's Mass tells us that Our Lord's relatives thought this about Him. In a way, can you blame them? He hasn't been around Nazareth for a while, his carpenter shop has been empty, even his mother walks around a bit sad that her son is gone. Add to that the fact that they're hearing stories about Jesus: he expelled an evil spirit, he healed a man paralyzed, he's bouncing from village to village and sees himself as some sort of Rabbi (he learned to be a craftsman from his father; they don't remember him being sent off to apprentice with a Rabbi). Plus, he went out and got himself new friends: some fishermen, ok, but a member of the Zealot party? A TAX COLLECTOR? Seriously, can you blame them?
If you're a Priest, no doubt you've heard the "out of his mind" line said about you, usually right after phrases like: "What do you mean we have to go to Mass every Sunday?", "Why won't you allow my brother to be a Godparent? He's a better Wiccan than he ever was a Catholic!", "Why can't we play my father's favorite song at his funeral Mass? He loved Pink Floyd".
If you're a seminarian, you probably heard the line the first time you told your family you were thinking about becoming a Priest. You probably used it more than a few times when you met your confreres and teachers in the seminary. And, it was probably said about you in evaluations when you asked your summer assignment pastor why he doesn't preach about contraception around the anniversary of Humanae Vitae?
If you're a Catholic husband or wife, you're spoken of in this way when you go anywhere in public with more than two children. Our culture congratulates you when you have one child, accepts the fact that you have two children (you had one of one sex and you were either successful or not in having one of the other sex), and begins to question you when you have more than two.
Roller coasters have never been my thing in amusement parks. Come to think of it, most rides aren't, either. To me, the rides exist as something to make it exciting when you walk past one and see an unexpected place to buy food or souvenirs.
But this one time, I was at an amusement park on a trip with a bunch of kids, who bugged me to go on a roller coaster with them. At first, it was easy to say yes. The line was huge and there were lots of conversations going on to distract me from thinking about what I was about to do. But as we crept closer and closer to the front of the line, I was starting to get this bad feeling in my stomach. I was looking for some believable excuse to bail out of the line, when I saw them: kids, probably about 9 or 10 years old, excited as they were coming off of the ride, begging the adult with them to let them go on the ride one more time. Suddenly, the twisting of my stomach stopped. If young kids could handle it without fear, so could I.
That's the effect, I think, Saint Agnes had on the Christians of Rome. Everyone lived in fear of the Roman Empire, and especially the absolute authority the government had to order you killed. She taught them, by her example, to be brave and to face the fears head on. "If she can do it,", hopefully they believed, "why can't I?" If she can face death with a sense of hope, then we can do at least the same.
As we honor her feast day today, I think of the two churches in Rome named for her. The first one in the midst of the Piazza Navona, on the site of her martyrdom, is called Sant' Agnese in Agone. Very easy to spot, though not open all of the time. You almost have to pounce when you see the doors open. The second one, at the site of her burial, is called Sant' Agnese Fuori La Mura. I've only been out to this one once, and here's a picture of the tomb containing the relics of St. Agnes.
The very words should cause us to gasp, because it probably did so to early Christians.
Lepers were considered "dead men walking", and were banished from towns and villages. For a leper to approach someone without the disease was to bring about a death sentence upon himself (someone who couldn't be trusted with staying away from infecting people had to be killed for the good of society). The opening prayer for the First Week of Ordinary Time asks God to help us to do His will with "courage and faith". For this leper to approach Jesus took both of those things; he was either going to get cured or get killed.
Put yourself in the sandals of Peter, Andrew, James, and John, when the leper approaches Jesus. There would be no surprise; they probably would have smelled the leper before they saw him. The face, hands and feet become a mass of nodules. The muscles and tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. The vocal chords ulcerate and so the voice becomes hoarse and breathing is more like wheezing. The muscles around the eyes deteriorate so that the leper can only stare straight forward. Discolored patches would appear on the skin, that eventually putrify.
THAT'S what approaches Jesus.
Mark (but really Peter) tells us the man knelt before Jesus, which could not have been easy to do with his muscles. He speaks to Jesus, forcing words through those vocal chords. But more than that, we read that Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him! He didn't have to touch the possessed man a few verses before in order to heal him. He didn't have to tough the leper; he wanted to. Maybe to give this man the first human contact he's probably had in years. Maybe to freak out the Apostles. Maybe both.
For whatever reason(s) he did it, what Mark tells us next must have been amazing to watch: "The leprosy left him immediately". Imagine seeing what the Apostles saw: leather-like skin turning pink, muscles growing, wheezing stopping, his voice clear. It had to have made them all speechless.
What ailment do you have? What eats at your body (or soul)? Have you knelt in front of the Lord and begged him, saying, "If you wish, you can make me clean"?
Now the extra credit: What if he doesn't wish to heal you? What if he says to you, like St. Paul, "My grace is sufficient for you to heal yourself"? Would you still love him? What is, rather than saying "no", the Lord is saying "not yet"? Do you have the patience?
So THAAAAT'S how the demon knew who Jesus was! Those crazy apostles...
But seriously, folks...
Today's readings teach us about the awareness of God's presence.
Hannah is in the Temple, pleading with God for a child. Eli doesn't realize how intense Hannah's prayer is, and thinks she's loaded. He should have realized that, in God's presence, anything can happen.
Jesus, along with Simon, Andrew, James, and John enter the synagogue in Capernaum for the sabbath, where week after week men came to be in the presence of God. This day, however, they were in the same room with God, and didn't realize it. Yes, they were astonished by Jesus' teachings, but no one made the connection. That is, no one except the man possessed by the unclean spirit. The demon knows immediately that God is present.
We're at the time of year when football playoffs mean people are shelling out hundreds of dollars to sit in a stadium to watch a game they could literally watch for free (with a better view)! It'll build up to the Super Bowl, where people will pay thousands of dollars for a seat in Dolphin Stadium. Why? Presence. Because there's something about being present in the place where the game is being played.
We're at the time of year when lots of politicos will be spending hundreds of dollars to attend the inaugural ball for the incoming Governor of New Jersey. They'll buy special clothes, get their hair and nails done, some will rent limosines, etc., all to simply be in the same room with the new Governor; to be in his presence.
How long would you stay in line to get a "meet & greet" with your favorite celebrity? Hours of waiting for 30 seconds of "face time". Why? Presence.
Do we have that awareness of the difference God's presence makes? Do we go into church aware that we are entering the presence of God? How many times do we clergy make light of that fact, barely stopping for a genuflection or a prayer when we have to get something in the church?
Two great readings as we jumped back into Ordinary Time at Mass today.
In the first one, Elkanah gives food to both his wives, though Peninnah was bugged that hubby gives Hannah a double portion because she's childless (and Peninnah never lets her forget it).
In the Gospel, Jesus is walking along the Sea of Galilee, where he calls Simon, Andrew, James, and John to follow him. Now, there were more than two boats along the shore, and certainly more than four fishermen there. What made Jesus choose them and not the guys in the next boat? I like to think about the boats tied up between Simon and Andrews' and James and Johns', and the guys who worked on them. Imagine them seeing Jesus walk past, say something to S., A., J., & J., and they all walk away. Imagine them wondering, "What's wrong with us, Jesus? What are we, chopped liver?"
How many times do we forget about what God has given us or done for us, and focus on what we don't have or didn't get because someone else did?
Scott Hahn had a great analogy to tell the difference between envy and jealousy. Envy, he said, is when you see your neighbor's new car and decide to get a second job to make money to buy yourself one. Jealousy is when you see your neighbor's new car and decide to scratch the paint job with your keys.
On this Sunday's feast, part of my homily dealt with this stained glass image in my parish. When the church was built, it was the window in the Baptistry; now it's in the Reconciliation Room (or whatever the trendy term is nowadays. Personally, I'm all for "Penalty Box").
I love the little quirks of the picture: I love that the Jordan River is all of 18 inches wide (just enough for Jesus to stand in). I love that John the Baptist has a bunch of shamrocks growing behind him (I suppose it's because of the actions of the whole Trinity, but more realistically it's probably because the Pastor at the time was of Irish ancestry). I love the angel holding Jesus' cloak. I love that Jesus is looking at John's garment and wondering, "What's up with that bump?"
After Mass someone came up to me and said, "Father, thanks for telling me about that stained glass window. I've never seen it before." It took all of my self-control to make some sarcastic comment about her frequency of Confession. But by then I had 3 Masses, and I was a little tired, so I chose to punt.
It was after a recent funeral that a Deacon who reads this blog made the comment that I hadn't really written anything on here in a while. Checking out my own blog, I realized it had, indeed, been more than six weeks since I put anything of significance out into cyberspace (the pictures and links notwithstanding).
First, let me note that today is the 150th anniversary of the death of Philadelphia's own St. John Neumann (although, to be more precise, it's more like "Bohemia's, New York's, Niagara's, Pittsburgh's, Baltimore's and Philadelphia's own Neumann"). While our current Year for Priests perhaps got its impetus from the 150th anniversary of the death of St. Jean Vianney in 1859, it is significant to note Bishop Neumann's anniversary this year. Last year I wrote a blog entry about Neumann and his ties to New Jersey (including my own diocese), and you can read that by clicking HERE.
Now, about me absence from the blogosphere. Being Administrator of a parish for the first time (as well as being the only priest here), it amazes me how much faster my day goes! Each day I wake up early (though I should get up earlier and go to the gym, but that's for another entry), have a cup of coffee, head to the church, say Mass, come back here, and then it seems like I blink and the Angelus bells are ringing at 12 noon. I think to myself, "Let me just finish this one thing before I eat lunch", and suddenly it's 2pm! I grab lunch and a riposo (a holy priest once told me, "A good priest wakes up at 5:30... TWICE a day!"), and then it's time for evening meetings, whether with individuals, couples, or parish organizations.
What it means is that some things take a back seat, and amongst them has been this blog. Unfortunately some of my friends have also suffered, since I don't really get to see them or spend time with them as I used to. Certainly my waistline has suffered, since I've been eating weird hours and usually the food that is the most convenient to get quickly. In the meantime, I've also been spending my computer time tweaking my parish's new website, and time I spend doing that takes away from blogging.
But with a new year comes new optimism. So I begin to reorganize my life and catch up on things. Today, in writing a blog entry, I can check another thing off of my list of "things I need to start doing again".