The Graces of my first year as a Priest

“I can’t believe that this day is here.”  I remember, vividly, thinking this very same thought last year on Saturday morning June 3rd, 2017.   Then it happened.  I was ordained a priest and it truly was the happiest day of my life.  I remember the hugs from all the priests of the diocese welcoming me into their brotherhood as one of their own. I remember being challenged by one of my priest heroes to wake up every morning and pray “Lord, help me to love your People as Christ loved us.” And finally, I remember my first Mass, the smiles, and joy visible on the faces of my family and friends.  It was one of those moments that no-one would deny the presence of the Holy Spirit.  And yet, I find myself thinking these same words this weekend, “I can’t believe that this day is here.”

This weekend marks my one year anniversary as a priest.  One year that really is filled with a lifetime of memories.  When I arrived here I was filled with both the excitement and nervousness at beginning priestly ministry.  I arrived and felt immediately welcomed.  Fr. Tony in his joy and good humor and by all of you in your open hearts to receiving a baby priest. I remember looking out over the hill at the city of Rockford, smoking a cigar with Fr. Tony in late July saying, “I am so happy to be here as associate pastor.” Then July ended, and the marathon began.

In August I met a man from the parish who would teach me more about priesthood than I ever learned in the seminary.  He was a young married man with children, and for some reason, he was very sick.  Over the next 4-6 weeks he and I would chat about sports, pray, and laugh.  But we would also worry, cry and wonder why he had to suffer and why he wasn’t getting better?  I didn’t have the answers.  All I could tell him, was that “no matter what, God would never leave him; God would never allow him to suffer alone.” And eventually we would celebrate his funeral.  It seems odd now to say that this was one of the highlights from my first year as a priest. But it was. I saw in this young man the face of Christ. I was with his family as they said goodbye.  I watched as his Mom, Dad, sibling and wife all kissed him on the forehead and said, “we love you.” I remember being thanked by the family for being there, and I thought, “where else would I be. You all are my family. This is what priests do.”

I’ll never forget this young man, but since his funeral, I’ve often wondered, “Why Lord?” And, as it so often happens with God’s grace, but at times we least expect, months later I received an answer.  Barely two weeks ago our parish said goodbye to a lifelong parishioner, and one of her daughters spoke after Mass saying, “My mom lived a life in loving service modeled after Christ’s love, and so it is fitting that she would experience a death like his.” We may never understand why we have to say goodbye to people we love before we are ready, and I certainly do not think it is God’s perfect will for us to experience this. But I think God uses even their ‘deaths’ to be wellsprings of grace for us.  They are moments of great suffering, confusion and pain, but they can become also great memories of God’s never failing love and proximate presence in our lives.

And then it was October. I was walking up the hill to the rectory while the kids from the school were outside playing during recess.  A couple of the young ones ran toward me and with great joy shouted, “Fr. Stephen! Fr. Stephen!  Will you play with us?!” This was one of the best moments. From an outsiders perspective, it may have looked like I had given those kids a great gift that day, but I can assure you it was the other way around.  At that moment, I felt at home.  Our Lady had transitioned from being “my first assignment as a priest” to the place that I now call home. 

The amount of families who have opened their homes to me and invited me over for dinner is impossible to count.  This is not a highlight because of the great food; although my waistline would say otherwise 😉, but it has been a highlight as it has allowed me to come to know many of you on a more personal level. I look out now at the congregation as I begin my homily, and I see all the familiar faces.  I see the people who I have shared a meal with, talked and prayed with. It truly is a beautiful thing to stand up there and see the person that I know needs prayers right now, or the person that I know has received the happiest news, or the person that I know needs God’s comfort and peace.  Getting to know all of you has been one of the best highlights.

Finally, it cannot be overstated how much I love celebrating the Sacraments.  I find myself in awe as I come down the hill most mornings. “How can it be that I have the great privilege of celebrating Mass for and with God’s people today?!”   I am equally in awe as I think about the people I have anointed over the past year.  Upon reflection, I think these moments have been so powerful because I have the privilege to witness people’s trust and hope in God.  Hope that God will make us well, and trust, that whatever the outcome, God is with us no matter what.  Reconciliation, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the joy on one’s face after receiving God’s forgiveness and assurance that one is loved unconditionally by our Father; who indeed is rich in mercy.

Friends, the priest’s vocation is to imitate Christ’s loving service completely. The life of a priest is a shared gift.  It has been a great gift to me as I have encountered God in so many people and experiences this year.  But, the life of a priest is a gift for God’s people as well.  May we rejoice with grateful hearts this weekend for the gift of the priesthood.  Especially as our Diocese ordains three men this weekend; including our beloved Fr. Michael Steffes. Much more can be said here, but I end with this, some days I fear I am receiving much more from all of you than I could possibly give to you.  But isn’t that what’s truly great about Christian friendship, we become icons of God’s goodness, grace and love for each other.

With great love and joy,

Fr. Stephen

Our Pilgrimage of Love

The movement of the Ascension will be complete only when all the members of his body have been drawn to the Father and brought to life by His Spirit.

The latter had gone forth as the only Son; now he returns in the flesh, bringing the Father’s adoptive Sons [and daughters]” (Wellspring of Worship, 65).

A couple thousand years ago, our Heavenly Father in sent his son Jesus on a pilgrimage of love.  The purpose of this journey was to seek us out and bring us back to the Father. And so, this pilgrimage of love began a couple of months ago when we celebrated Christmas. 

The pilgrimage continued six weeks ago when we celebrated Easter, Christ’s victory and the gift of our salvation.  Today we celebrate the completion of that pilgrimage of love.  Today we celebrate the Ascension, the final act of the paschal mystery.  The Paschal mystery is Christ’s death, His Resurrection, and His Ascension.  Each is important to the salvation event.  In His death, Jesus enters into the depths of our human condition, takes on our sins, suffers with and for us.  In His resurrection, Jesus conquers the powers of evil; sin and death, raises us to new life, and gives us freedom and peace.  Now today, we celebrate the final act of salvation; The Ascension.  Today is the day that we celebrate, “The eternal joy of the Father at the return of his beloved Son.” But today, we also celebrate our journey to the Father.  Because at Jesus’ ascension he lifts us up as well, and brings us back to Father and says, “These too, are your sons and your daughters.” But the pilgrimage does not end here.  Jesus’ earthly pilgrimage might have ended but now its time for the Church’s pilgrimage of love to begin.

A couple of weeks ago I suggested that all of us pray with the Book of Acts.  This is because the Book of Acts is how the early church proclaimed the Father’s love by remaining committing to love as Christ loves, to bring reconciliation to sinners, and to bring God’s peace and comfort to the suffering. The early Christians and how they responded to Christ’s paschal mystery are a model for us. They show us how to be Apostles.  They too were sent on a pilgrimage of love and responded. 

Jesus has completed his earthly mission.  He came down from heaven to proclaim the Father’s love to the world.  Now he returns to heaven, bringing with him, all of us.  Now it’s our turn…

Jesus says this much to us this weekend: Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.  And then we are told that we have apostles,  prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers, to equip [us] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ. And finally, we have what sounds like a sarcastic comment from the men in heaven, why are you standing there looking at the sky? And now, It is our turn to go on a pilgrimage of love. 

So here’s the question for us to reflect on this week, who are you bringing with you to the Father? Jesus has brought us to the Father, now he asks us for help.  Who will we bring with us?

 

In Christ’s Love and Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

First Communions – A Reminder of the Joy that God Gives Us

Alright boys and girls how many of you are excited for your first holy communion tonight?  Why are you excited?  Did you know that you are giving a precious gift to the rest of us here this evening?  You are!  Boys and girls, your joy, your joy in receiving Jesus, is a gift for all of us to witness.  It is a reminder for all of us present, how joyful of an occasion receiving our Lord in the Holy Eucharist truly is.

As I look at these young faces getting ready to receive Jesus for the first time, I am reminded this evening, of my first time celebrating Mass.  It was an awesome and beautiful day that I will never forget.  Something that was passed on to me at my ordination I want to pass on to all of you.  There is a saying offered as encouragement for newly ordained priests: Priests of God celebrate each Mass as if it was your first as if it was your last, and as if it was your only Mass.  This saying is meant to encourage priests to celebrate Mass with the same joy as if it was their first, the same love as it was their last, and with same gratitude as if it was their only Mass.

This is my encouragement for all us present this evening; and especially for the first communicants!  Whenever you receive communion, receive Jesus as if it was your first time, your last time, and your only time! In other words, may we receive Jesus with great joy, love and gratitude!

How do we know that Jesus loves us? Jesus says, love one another, as I have loved you. The cross shows us that Jesus loved us so much by offering his life for us. Not only that, but Jesus gave us the Eucharist, his body and blood, as a constant reminder of his love for each of us. Through Christ’s action on the cross and the Eucharist, he tells us that we are valued, precious and loved by God.  This is why we have Joy.  Not because we loved God first, but rather because he loves us and has loved us first! Friends, we can learn a lot from these little ones this weekend.  Jesus proclaims to us this weekend that my joy may be in you and your joy might be complete.  In a special way, Christ’s joy is on the faces of these little ones, may we too be filled with joy and the knowledge that we are loved tremendously by God.

This weekend, may the joy of the first communicants be our joy, a joy that reminds us that Jesus came so that we might have joy and that our joy would be complete.

 

In Christ’s Love and Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Remain in me – Jesus is the source of our Life

The image of the vine and branches is a vital union. Without the vine, the branches will die.  In Jesus’ final I Am statement of the Gospel of John, Jesus claims I am the vine, which is the constant source of life for the branches.

And so, what is Jesus saying to us this weekend other than, I am your source of life. I am what gives you life!  A question I wonder is how does Jesus give us his life today?

Jesus gives us his life today through the Eucharist.  Our seminarian, Danny, loves to compare the spiritual nourishment we get from the Eucharist to the physical nourishment we get from food.  Our bodies, need food and water to survive.  Without food and water, we would die.  We need both in order to live.  The same is true in the spiritual life, all of us need the Eucharist in order to live spiritually.  We need the graces of the Sacrament of the Eucharist, to be filled with God’s life and love, and to be nourished by Jesus who gives us life.  He is the vine, we are the branches, we draw our life from our Lord.

With this in mind, I want to focus for a moment on how important weekly participation in the Eucharistic Liturgy, that is, the celebration of the Mass, is for each one of us. A couple of months ago,  I was giving a talk to the parents of the kids receiving their first communion this year.  One of the young Mom’s asked, “Father, is it really a “grave sin” to miss Sunday Mass?” I said, nervously (because I knew there was a reason she was asking) well yes, but let’s think about the reason.  And so first I clarified, there could be a just reason to miss Mass such as your son/daughter was sick with the flu and you were taking care of him/her.  An example where it wouldn’t be okay to miss Mass would be staying home to watch the Lions play if the game is on in the morning (which could happen if they are playing in London. The church certainly doesn’t want to overburden us with guilt.  So, why does the Church encourage us to go Mass?  The answer lies in our Gospel.  Jesus said he is the source of life! Thus, it is participating in the weekly celebration of the Mass that fills us with the life of Christ. And so, I think the best way to encourage people to commit to Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, is by reminding them exactly what Jesus tells us today -that this is the place to remain with Jesus – the source of our life.

And this is how we are to remain with Him. Our lives need to hear the Word of Christ proclaimed and preached in our lives.  Our spiritual lives are nourished both in the hearing of the Word of God and in reception of the Holy Eucharist. And then Christ sustains what we have heard and received at Mass in our prayer-life throughout the week.  Our prayer life is an essential element to remaining with Christ.  This allows us to reflect on and give God thanks for what we have received each Sunday.

But it can’t stop here.  Something else needs to happen.  Christ says, whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.  A couple of weeks ago I was discussing the importance of the Eucharist with a young man, who is Protestant.  He is interested in the Catholic Faith and has asked to meet with me periodically to answer some of his questions.  And one of his questions, about the Eucharist, specifically was, “why do Catholics seem hyper-focused on the Eucharist”?  And I said, “can you explain what you mean by that?” He said, “I just feel that Catholics say the reason they go to Mass is all about receiving the Eucharist, but not as much about Evangelization.”  And I said oh man you hit on a very important point.  Yes, Catholics absolutely have a sense of the importance of the Eucharist, but it cannot end with receiving Jesus.  There is a response!

I said to the young man, look when Mass on Sundays begin, often we process in with the Book of the Gospels, then we are nourished by Christ’s Word and by Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist.  When Mass is over we do not process out with the book of the Gospels, because we are now called to literally be the procession of the Good News into the world.  Our lives are to be so filled with Christ’s life and love, and even transformed, that the experience of Christ love from the liturgy bears fruit in the world.  In other words, as Catholics we have been called to bring the very Jesus we have received into our bodies into the world. And this is why we as the branches must remain close to Jesus through the Mass (the living Word and the Eucharist); “for [we are the] branches to bear fruit, [we] must stay attached to the vine. If the [we] are to produce works of love,  [we] must remain in communion with Jesus: Remain in me, as I remain in you.

 

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Are we like the Good Shepherd?

Jesus is our Good Shepherd.  I think this is one of those weekends where it is important to look at some of the historical and biblical context because this already profound Gospel increases in its depth and meaning.  Jesus is preaching to the Jews from the Temple.  And so, when he says “I Am the Good Shepherd” we have to ask ourselves, “what would a Jew of Jesus’ time be thinking when they hear Jesus say those words, I Am the Good Shepherd?”

The most obvious thing, which would be the most shocking, is that this is another “I Am” statement from Christ. This is a claim that speaks to his divinity, and goes back to Moses when God told Moses that His name was “I Am”.  But the Good Shepherd was also a subtle claim of his identity as God’s son. 

In Ezekiel 34, the prophet Ezekiel is calling out bad prophets.  He is challenging the religious leaders of Ancient Judaism for three grave misdeeds:  1) for being self-loving pastors, they do not serve the needs of their sheep, but instead, serve themselves; 2) for not protecting the sheep against wild beasts; 3) Finally, for allowing the sheep to be scattered throughout the world.  Ezekiel says these heartbreaking words: The Sheep were scattered and No one looked after them or searched for them (Ez 34:6). But then God promises, I myself will search for my sheepand I myself will pasture them (Ez 34: 11, 15).

Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise through the words of the prophet Ezekiel. Jesus is The Good Shepherd who has come into the world to search for His sheep.  See how Jesus corrects the bad shepherds by giving us a model to follow. Jesus won’t be self-serving or self-loving but rather he will lay down his life for his sheep.  Jesus will not leave his sheep unprotected but rather save them from the powers of evil; sin and death.  Finally, Jesus will unite his sheep who have been scattered; and furthermore, he will seek out other sheep not initially of this flock and bring them into it.  In other words, Christ, who is speaking to Jews says, I will bring together my sheep who are Jews and Gentiles together into one flock.  This is Christ extending an offer of salvation to the world, not just a nation.

My friends this weekend, we are invited to pray about how we imitate the Good Shepherd.  We are called to imitate is selfless love for others.  This is a particularly strong command from our Lord for us priests.  I pray every day that I let myself (all my wants and my selfishness) get out of the way so that I will be ready to serve God’s people.  Married couples, your sacrificial love for your spouses and children can be a sign for us of God’s love for humanity. Finally, all of us do this as we remember each day the spiritual and corporeal works of mercy.  Each day we must ask ourselves, how are we turning away from selfishness, and offering our lives in loving service for others?

We are called to imitate the Good Shepherd by protecting one another from evil in this world. Parents you do this when you protect your children from movies or other media that is not appropriate.  Or we do this for each other as we hold each other accountable for sins.  All of us need good friends in our lives who are willing to say “Hey, man, I love you and you can’t do that.” We hear in the book of James, those who keep a friend from falling into sin, have canceled a multitude of sins.

Finally, we imitate the Good Shepherd by seeking unity amongst ourselves.  One way we do this is by holding on to our common baptism amongst our sisters and brothers of otheChristianan communities. Especially today we do well to avoid any strain of an “us versus them mentality”.  Also, unity in our families.  How willing are we to forgive those who have wronged us.  Christ desires for families to be united.  We do this by holding on to the prayer he taught us: forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us.

This weekend we are reminded that we do have a good shepherd.  A shepherd who loves us totally, protects us from evil, and brings us together as one family.  As we receive the Eucharist this Sunday, may we too strive to love as Christ loves, to protect those close to us from evil, and to seek the unity of Christ in our lives.

 

In Christ’s Love,

Fr. Stephen

Lectio Divina: Addendum for the Homily “Bring Your Bibles to Mass”

Pope Benedict on praying with Sacred Scripture: “I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina: ‘the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart’ (cf. Dei verbum, n. 25).”

Friends, I would like to focus on Pope Benedict’s profound insight regarding Sacred Scripture and prayer. The insight admittedly is probably an obvious one, but it is no less important.  Sacred Scripture and Prayer need to exist together.  Many have said to me in my first months here at Our Lady that they desire to read the Scriptures more.  They acknowledge that there is a great difficulty incorporating scripture into their daily lives.  When I ask why it has been so difficult, many reply, “I just don’t know where to start.”

It can be difficult to enter into Sacred Scripture if we open it without a plan; especially if we open it up without a plan for prayer.  There are two steps we can do to improve our prayer with Sacred Scripture.  The first step is to pray with the upcoming Sunday readings that we will hear together as a christian community.  There is no need to reinvent the wheel.  The Church takes a great deal of effort to put together the Sunday reading cycle.  The readings we hear on weekly basis are connected and will take you on a spiritual journey through out the year. Not only will this directly impact your understanding of the readings, but I believe the liturgy of the word will become a much more meaningful part of the Mass. 

The second step to improving our prayer with Sacred Scripture is to follow a method.  This is what Pope Benedict recommends above, he encourages us to pray with Sacred Scripture through the ancient practice of Lectio Divina.  Here’s the method:

The first step is Listening.  Read the specific passage of scripture slowly.  Pay attention to the details, even the small ones.  I find it helpful to read the passage at least three times before I do anything else. The listening stage is important, because this is where we attempt to let go of our own agenda, and allow the Scripture to speak to us in its context. 

The second step is a time for Reflection.  The USCCB does a great job explaining the period of reflection in Lectio Divina: “Entering into this kind of [reflection], we might try to place ourselves in the scene. We want to encounter God through the text with our whole selves: our minds, hearts, emotions, imaginations, and desires.”  In other words, in this step, literally, imagine yourself in the passage you are mediating on.  For example, if Jesus performs an action (speaks, heals, looks) on a figure in scripture, replay the scene in your mind, and imagine Jesus literally speaking, healing or looking at you.

Third, is the time for Prayer. Here is our chance to respond.  After we reflect on the words of Sacred Scripture, usually it causes us to have a response.  That response could be any of the following: an act of thanksgiving, joy at a new experience of God, lament (wondering how God is with you), or repentance.  Here is where we respond to God and let him know how His Word has impacted us today.

After the prayer is the fourth step which is Contemplation.  In this stage, we simply sit in silence and rest in God’s presence.  In Contemplation, we allow the prayer to take root in our hearts.  In short, if prayer (in general) is dialogue, then after we have said something in the third step to our Lord, now we allow God to speak to our hearts.  This step takes time to grow into, so be patient.  But in time it will become the most life-giving part of your prayer!

Finally, the last step in Lectio Divina is Action.  Again, the USCCB sums this stage up perfectly, after we have prayed with Scripture, “we should consider what God wants us to do as a result of having encountered the Divine Presence in Scripture.”  We should not be the same after this period of prayer.  Afterwards, we ought to have a deeper love for God, or be motivated to conversion to work on a particular sin, or even given the courage to respond to a particular calling from God.  The action stage accepts the experience of God and seeks to apply it to our lives going forward.

Friends, I hope this will help you to continue to fall in love the Word of God.  Pope Benedict is absolutely right, praying with Scripture can be an intimate dialogue with our Lord. I pray it will be this for all of us.

Bring your Bibles to Mass

One of my favorite priests said to me, Stephen, “There are few guarantees in the spiritual life, but this is one of them.  If you read Scripture every day, When you close your eyes in death, and you open them again, you will recognize where you are.”

In our Gospel, we have another account of Jesus appearing to his disciples after the Resurrection.   And Luke tells us that Jesus, opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.  What we have this weekend is a reminder that the Bible, the word of God, is important for our own spiritual nourishment. Pope Francis says to us “The Bible is not meant to be placed on a shelf, but to be in your hands, to read often – every day, both on your own and together with others.” 

On May 12th, Andrew Ayers, our seminarian intern from last year, will be ordained to the diaconate.  And at his ordination Mass, there is a very powerful moment where the Bishop will hand the newly ordained the Book of the Gospels: And he will say, “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” In other words, the Scriptures enable us to believe in God and to know Him, to teach – proclaim the Good News, and to Love as God loves.

Saint Jerome once said, “Ignorance of Scriptures, is ignorance of Christ.” Recently, in the Young Adults group, we have here at Our Lady, we were discussing the Holy Spirit. And one young lady said that she has a great relationship with Holy Spirit, but she struggles with Jesus, because “she wasn’t alive when he was”. Isn’t this a similar struggle that all of us can experience? None of us were alive when Jesus was! So I asked her, how do you learn about Christ?  And she was kind of hoping I would give her an answer.  Here’s the thing, if we want to know who Christ is, we need to read the Scriptures.  We need to read about how Jesus talked to people, how he loved, how he responded emotionally to struggles and sufferings, and to read about how he healed people.  To know Jesus, we must read about Him. Therefore, the more we know Jesus in the Scriptures, the more we believe in a God who loves us.

The Bible is necessary for all of us to have the capability to teach our faith.  Priests, for example, must both carefully study scripture and pray with the Scriptures in order to proclaim God’s word to people today.  But this is not just important for priests.  It’s also important for anyone who is a catechist, anyone who has children and is important for anyone who has family and friends who have yet to discover God’s goodness in their own lives.  So, my brothers and sisters, that is all of us.  All of us are called to teach the faith in some way to people in our lives.  So all of must be readers of the Word of God, listeners of that Word in our own hearts, so that we can be preachers of the Word in our world.

Finally, Scripture and prayer is an essential element to developing a relationship with God; these are an essential element of learning to love as God loves.  The unity of prayer and scripture opens our hearts to hear how God is calling us to change.  To help explain how this works, one of my favorite passages of Scripture is Luke 22:61.  This scene takes place right after Peter has denied Christ for the third time.  Peter looks up and sees Jesus, and this verse says, and Jesus looked at Peter.  At this moment, I totally relate to Peter, in the shame and guilt experienced after rejecting God’s love, and yet at the same time, I feel more loved by Christ’s look.  Its as if Christ is saying in his gaze, “You are worth it.  I am suffering out of love for you.” This is an example of how we pray with Scripture.

And so, my friends, this weekend I recommend three ways to grow closer to your Bible.  First, begin to read scripture every day.  It might be a good idea to start with the Book of Acts.  We are in the Easter season, and this is the time in the early Church when the disciples of Christ go out and proclaim the Good News of Christ boldly.  Second, pray with the Sunday readings before coming for Sunday Mass.  I promise this will make a difference at Mass! Finally, feel free to bring your Bibles to Church!  If something strikes you in the readings at Mass, you can put a bookmark in that spot and pray with it later. 

May we all continue to grow close to Sacred Scripture as we “Believe what we read, teach what we believe, and practice what we teach.

 

In Christ’s Love,

Fr. Stephen