Will you leave me too?

I’m sorry. We’re sorry.The Church is sorry.

  • I’m sorry to all of the survivors of priest abuse. Friends these are the ones we must pray for right now.  These are the ones we absolutely cannot forget.
  • When I’ve read letters from Church officials that beg us to pray for our priests and bishops right now, something doesn’t sit right with me.  It seems to miss the point.  Yes bishops and priests need prayers, but is seems self-centered to focus on church officials when there are so many who have been wounded by clergy who need our prayers.  The survivors need our prayers first.
  • I’m proud of Bishop Walkowiak.  In our bulletin this weekend we have included Bishop’s letter to the faithful of Grand Rapids.  He too apologizes and calls for prayers for the survivors.
  • “My prayers today are with the survivors of sexual abuse. I am truly sorry for the pain you have endured.” And he concludes, “We pray for the survivors of [those abused by clergy], and [we pray] for their families that their wounds may be healed by our ever-loving God.” 

We’re sorry…

  • I’m sorry also to all of those who are family or friends of those who have been abused by clergy. You expected your loved ones to experience the God who loves them in Church, and instead they experienced great evil and abuse.
  • And I’m sorry to all of you here tonight.  This is the Church you love. This is your faith.  And I share with all of you the great anger over the abuse, the cover ups, and the betrayal.
  • I’m sorry that Fr. Tony and I did not address this last weekend. In all honesty I needed some time.  I was experiencing many different emotions. 
    • I was angry, “How can this happen?”  I thought, “Seriously, we allowed priests to continue in ministry when we knew the types of evil acts they were committing?”
    • I was also filled with shame.  The day that the Grand Jury report came out in Pennsylvania was the first time I did not want to wear my collar.  I was embarrassed. Here were priests, men who are supposed to be vessels of God’s love, healing, and grace, and yet, we discover that there were men who did the opposite.  Priests who wounded, hurt and led people away from God.
    • I also felt helpless.  What could I give all of you?  What can I say that would take away your anger and frustration?
  • Finally, I’m sorry that this apology won’t be good enough. Because an apology on its own can’t be good enough. 
    • Responding to the several statements from Bishops, one catholic writer recently wrote, “Unfortunately we have heard the apologies and promises before.  The time for strongly worded statements has passed.  It is time for action. And its time for urgent action!”

So what needs to happen? Well, unfortunately we have had so many examples over the past year to learn from…

    • Last fall, their was the scandal in Hollywood where there was abuse and there were cover ups.
    • Then in the winter there was Larry Nassar and his abuse of young women that was covered up at Michigan State.
    • This summer, Ohio State faced difficulties with Coach Urban Meyer regarding domestic violence regarding one of his coaches.  When did he know? Why didn’t he tell more people?  Why didn’t he help the wife of one of his coaches who lived in fear?
    • Now, today, its our Church.  The abuse of minors and seminarians by Clergy and the cover up in the hierarchy.  Why did this happen?   How could we fail our people like this?
    • Which institution caused the greatest scandal?  Well, its our Church.  The Church is supposed to be a sign of God’s light and love in the world, and so, rightly, the Church is held to a higher standard.
    • It is necessary to bring things to the light.
    • These scandals together have taught us that action is necessary and an external review is also necessary.  Not just to avoid cover ups.  But also to protect our people. 
    • Archbishop Carlson, invited Attorney General Josh Hawley of Missouri to review all handlings of clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
    • I’m also proud of our diocese and Bishop Walkowiak. He explained to us in his letter that there is a review board in charge of handling all issues of clergy abuse.
    • He writes, “Our review board is comprised of two priests and seven lay members, including a retired judge, a retired FBI officer, therapists, and educators.”  He also assured us, this review board and himself, “immediately report these allegations to the proper local authorities and fully cooperate with their investigations.”
    • Whether its inviting the Attorney General, or establishing a review board controlled by laity, these two bishops have begun to act, to protect, and hopefully to end this abuse in our Church. 
    • I don’t know what other actions need to happen.  But I think what all of us can do is pray that the Holy Spirit continues to persuade our bishops to be courageous, to be transparent, and to allow for some form of external review of clergy abuse cases in order to protect our people.

But then there is an important question for all of us here to consider.   Why are you here today? After all of this, why are you still Catholic?

I was listening to an NPR show called 1A.  It was extremely difficult.  The host kept saying, “we want to hear from you Catholics around the country and tell us, why are you still Catholic? Why stay in a church where so much abuse has happened?” Throughout the show, many called, tweeted, or emailed to say they had left the Catholic Church, because they had lost all trust.

So, why stay Catholic? I think this Gospel is exactly what we needed to hear today.  Jesus looks at His Church, and he looks at all of us with a broken heart because of the sins of his ministers.  And in the wake of so many who have left, Jesus says with a heavy heart to each of us, will you leave me too?

Now obviously, when Jesus asks this question it is because of the many disciples who couldn’t accept the teaching on the Eucharist.  People weren’t leaving due to evil acts.  But the question is still relevant.  Will you leave me too?

So friends I invite you to stay. 

It would be easy for me after one year of priesthood to go.  In 2002 I was too young to understand the gravity of the scandal.  But as I grew up, and I began to understand what had happened, I felt called to be a priest to help rebuild trust between the people of God and His Church. 

What inspired me was the priest who stayed.  The good priests who stayed in their vocation.  When the world hated priesthood, they didn’t run.  The good priests stayed. 

It would be easy for us to leave right now. But I’m asking you to stay. This is the place that we experience the God who loves us, the God who heals us, the God who saves us.  And you should expect the best of your priests.  But you are not Catholic, you are not here because of me or Fr. Tony.  You are because of one man.  We are here because of one man, and that man is Jesus Christ.

So dear friends, I invite you to stay despite the failing of his ministers.

I invite you to stay and pray that Christ the divine physician will bring healing to the survivors. Especially right now in their time of need. 

Stay and pray for our leadership, that they may be compelled by the holy spirit and protect God’s people.

I invite you to stay.  Thats my plea tonight. Many of us turn to the Church when we need hope and healing in our lives.  Right now, the Church is vulnerable and needs this from you.  Stay and, with God’s grace, help the Church heal.


My hope and prayer for all of us here is that we will stay.  In a moment I will sit down and allow each of us to have a moment silence for prayer.  Jesus looks at each of us with a broken heart, for many have left due to horrible and evil actions of others, and he asks, “will you leave me to?”

My hope and prayer is that each of us will stay and answer like Peter and Joshua:  Lord to whom else shall we go? You have the words of Eternal Life.  As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!

In Christ’s Love and Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

The Lord Gives Us What We Need

Do we believe that God gives us what we need? The Israelites in our first reading from Exodus are wandering the desert.  They are in the desert because they have had something amazing happen to them – they have been freed from slavery.  And yet, as they wander in the desert, they begin to doubt God, doubt whether or not God is still with them, and even wish they were back in Egypt as slaves! So, God, as a sign of his love and fidelity gives them their fill of bread to eat.  He provides for them in a time of need.

The people are following Jesus, but they lost track of him. So they go to another part of the sea.  When they arrive, they find Jesus already at the town and he confronts them saying, Amen, Amen,  I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.  In other words, they seem to be looking for Jesus only because he provided them all with food – he provided for them what they needed.  But Jesus tells them, that the miracle of loaves and the fish was performed so that they would seek food that endures for eternal life.  But instead, they misunderstood and kept seeking food that perishes. But Jesus wanted to give them something more.  Jesus wanted to give them what they truly needed.  He wants to give them food that endures.

The Lord gives us what we need.  That is the good news we receive this weekend. And it’s the best news.  The Israelites in the desert were complaining and doubting God.  And he gives them bread to remind them that he will give them what they need.  The people seeking Jesus in our Gospel, doubt who Jesus really is.  They see his signs but they don’t understand. They ask for a greater sign.  He answers and they don’t realize that his answer truly is the greatest sign he could give. I am the Bread of life, says Jesus, your ancestors ate bread from heaven, but I am the bread of life that comes down from heaven to give you life. Jesus is making an identity claim here.  I am the one who comes from God.  I am one of divine origin.  I have been sent by the Father to give you life. 

So what do you need?  The Eucharist provides for all our needs. Are you seeking help in an addiction or a struggle with sin?  The Eucharist is your answer.  It is the spiritual medicine that Christ gives to help us overcome our weaknesses. Are you seeking deeper friendship and communion with Christ?  The Eucharist and the living Word of God will give that to you.  Are you seeking real friendship and a sense of belonging in a Christian community?  The Eucharist gives that to you as well.  It is the bond of fellowship.  The Eucharist is what brings each of us here together as God’s family.  My friends, I cannot stress this point enough.  Coming together around this Eucharistic table brings us closer to our Lord and closer to each other.  It is the sign of God’s love for us and our shared love for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Coming together and sharing the Eucharist, we become icons of God’s goodness to each other. If we see God working in the lives of others here, we become encouraged in our own spiritual lives.  Do you desire to love as Christ loves?  The Eucharist expands your heart and helps you grow in charity.  Do you simply just want to give Jesus thanks for the blessings God has given you.  Well, my friends, that’s the meaning of gathering around the Eucharistic table – the place where we give thanks!

May the Eucharist we receive today help us to open our hearts to receive from God what each of us truly needs. 

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Why should I give?

We are in the opening scenes of John 6, and just like where we left off in Mark, the crowds have followed Jesus and gathered around him. Jesus wants to take care of the crowds and give them life. And Jesus responds to their need for food by feeding them through the loaves and the fish.  Over these next five weeks, we will hear the entire chapter of John 6, more commonly known as the Bread of Life discourse where he will teach and proclaim that He is the Bread of Life. 

Friends, the Church is zoning in on this one chapter to remind us that Jesus continues to feed the crowds today through the context of the Mass.  As the Bread of Life, Jesus Christ Himself spiritually feeds us in the Eucharist!  John says that Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining… When we hear this our minds immediately think of the Eucharist since we hear at every Mass, “he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to them saying”. If we need any further proof that John is talking about the Eucharist consider these words in light of the other Gospels at the Last Supper:

    1. While they were eating, Jesus took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and giving it to his disciples said, ‘Take and eat; this is my body’ (Matthew 26:26).
    2. While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body’ (Mark 14:22).
    3. Then he took the bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which will be given for you; do this in memory of me (Luke 22:19).

Every early Christian would have made the connection between these last supper narratives and the words John used in the story of Christ feeding the five thousand.  It is undeniable, we are talking about the Eucharist.

If John is talking about the Eucharist and that is our focus in general for these next five weeks, then what is our particular focus for this weekend?  I believe the answer to that is the offertory.  Have you ever wondered why we both collect money at this point and have a family/or people of the community bring up the bread and wine?  This is not a stage production. This is not just something done to pass the time. 

Listen to these words from the instructions on the celebration of the Mass: At the time of the offertory, “the offerings are then brought forward. It is a praiseworthy practice for the bread and wine to be presented by the faithful. They are then accepted at an appropriate place by the Priest or the Deacon to be carried to the altar. Even though the faithful no longer bring from their own possessions the bread and wine intended for the liturgy as was once the case, nevertheless the rite of carrying up the offerings still keeps its spiritual efficacy and significance.”

Carrying up the offerings still keeps its spiritual efficacy and significance…(brief pause).  The purpose of the offertory is our time to intentionally give God thanks for the gifts he has given us. Its where we offer back the fruit of our labor to God. Further, it is where we, in faith, place our trust in God that He can take the little we have to offer and do something extraordinary! 

Okay, so by now you all must be thinking… “why is there a fridge next to Fr. Stephen?”  Well, I thought it might be fun to playfully consider what the priests could offer God this weekend… So let’s look inside. (have Danny go to the fridge and pull out each item one by one). 

Fr. Stephen: “Danny what’s the first thing you got.” 

Danny: “Skittles padre…”

Fr. Stephen:  “Oh no, we can’t give the skittles, those are my favorite… look for something else man.”

Danny:  “Alright.. well we have my espresso…you’re not going to make me give this away, are you???”

Fr. Stephen:  “Dude man, I don’t want to see what you become without your coffee. I’ll save you, we won’t give that away either. What else is in there?”

Danny: “we got Fr. Ton’s Fritos?”

Fr. Stephen: “Haha, lets not upset the pastor.  He likes those man.  Let’s save that for him.”

Danny: “We go some of Deacon Jim’s favorite potato chips!”

Fr. Stephen: No, let’s be good to the Deacon man, anything else in there?

Danny: “Aha!  I found a winner man!  Look at this we got ‘Leftovers’”!

Fr. Stephen: “Absolutely man! Boom! Winner! We’ll give the leftovers to God this weekend…Well done!” (Danny goes back to his seat).

All kidding aside, I believe God is inviting us to consider “What holds you and I back from giving to God and His Church?” Our readings name different destructive mentalities we can hold on to that can discourage us in our giving.

The first is this leftover mentality.  It is something we can all struggle with; including me.  When we are confronted with giving, most times we only do it at the end.  We look for what is left over. But this is contrary to what happens in our first reading.  We heard about a man who came to the Prophet Elisha offering twenty loaves of bread; which were from the firstfruits! One of the greatest roadblocks to our own personal giving is waiting to give that which is leftover.  If we do this, then we run the risk of running out and not having anything left to give God. 

But our Gospel also illustrates ways we can become discouraged in our giving.   The first comes from Philip.  Jesus asks where can we get enough food for the crowds and Philip responds despairingly, Lord, “Two hundred days’ wages worth of food would not be enough for each of them to have a little!” Friends, we know this way of thinking all too well.  All we have to do is think about our pending capital campaign. In all honesty,  I know that there have been times Fr. Tony, or myself, or anyone among you has thought, “6.2 million!  Really?  Even if we raised 2 million we only have enough to accomplish a little.” We see the need, but then we see the costs and we can become discouraged.  Just as Philip saw the need.  He saw the crowds.  He saw and agreed with Jesus; that they needed food, but Philip allowed himself to be discouraged, “Lord even if we had two hundred days wages, we still couldn’t provide for them.”  Because we are overwhelmed with how much we need, we tend to hold back because we think the amount, like Philip, is unattainable.

But the discouragement doesn’t end there.  Then we hear from Andrew. Andrew points to the boy and says, here is a young boy who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what good are these for so many?” Andrew also is discouraged but instead, because the gift is so small.  Lord, how can we provide for five thousand with only five loaves and two fish!?!  What does this mentality look like in our parish?  It looks something like this: “You know, I don’t make that much money… and what I have to give is not very much at all.  So, how could my gift do anything? What could my small gift really do for the parish?”

And finally, the last destructive mentality…. Thanks be to God, the boy offered the five loaves of bread and two fish, but imagine… What if the boy said to Jesus, “Hey man, this bread and these fish are for my family.   It’s not for those people.  If you take our food my family will suffer.” This is what I think would have been a normal response for somebody in the boy’s position.  “We were prepared, we shouldn’t suffer because they didn’t bring anything.  Because they didn’t give.  Or what if Christ said this to the Father?  What if our Lord would have said, “Heavenly Father, why should I give up my life for them? This doesn’t benefit me?  It’s too great of a cost!” Praise the Lord, Jesus didn’t say this…

I think all of us, if we are honest with ourselves, have experienced each of these discouragements when we are asked to give to the Church.

Friends, these are mentalities that are easy for us all to slip into.  But here’s the thing, these mentalities are not consistent with the Christian way of life.  These mentalities are not Jesus’ mentality.  Saint Peter reminds us in his letter that the mentality of a Christian is one who recognizes that all that we have is a gift, and the gifts we have are meant to be shared for the good of all as good stewards of God’s grace (1 Peter 4:10).

Praise God that Jesus had a different way of thinking!  Praise God that Jesus knew how to turn a small gift into a large one! And really, should we be surprised?  Think about it, our Lord Jesus already performed the greatest miracle ever: He is God and He became one of us.  Then he called the apostles, who were simple men and in the eyes of the world lacked talent.  And yet, they became the catalyst for the early Church to grow.  Then there is the gift of the Eucharist, where Jesus sends down his Holy Spirit and transforms simple bread and simple wine into his real presence so that he could spiritually feed us today.  Should we really doubt that he can transform our gifts into something amazing at this parish?

Brothers and Sister, imagine for a moment, just imagine… What good Jesus could accomplish through our parish if all of us gave in a way that was appropriate to our family.  I encourage any family’s here who have not been able to give ask yourself, “what could my family right now afford to give this parish?” Or if you are already an active giver, is God maybe inviting you to increase your giving by 1%? Here’s the point: Fr. Tony, myself, and the staff wants to offer so much more for this parish.  Imagine what God could do through the ministries of this parish if all of us confronted our own discouragements and had the courage and trust of the boy from the Gospel.  We, through God’s grace, could accomplish even more amazing things here at Our Lady of Consolation.

 

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Am I Coachable?

So, my favorite sport is basketball. I love to watch basketball as much as. I like to play it. One of the funniest evenings over the past year was during March Madness. Fr. Tony came back in the evening, and saw another college basketball game on the TV. He said jokingly with a tone of seriousness, “Seriously man, again? Basketball again? Do you watch anything else?!?”

But anyway, I love basketball and one of my favorite players is Stephen Curry. Early on in Stephen Curry’s career, he was no where near the player he is today. And he asked his coaches this question: What do I need to do to become a better player? His coaches gave him two things specifically. They said, become a better defender, and a better ball handler. If you do that, you will be great. Today, he is maybe one of the most crafty ball handlers in the league, and he has become an above-average defender. His improvement in his dribbling skills enabled him to become the MVP caliber player he is today.

Ok, why I am talking about all of this? I think coaching is so important in sports. In professional sports, having the right coach can make the difference between having an average team and a contending team. So, what is that one quality that all excellent coaches share? They know how to give challenging and constructive feedback. They do not tell their players that everything is fine. Sure, they affirm the good, absolutely! But they also, challenge and demand that their players change bad habits, strengthen their weaknesses, so that they can reach their potential.

This is what Jeremiah is talking about today. Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture. In other words, woe to those shepherds, who are like bad coaches. Who do not tell their flock what they need to hear. Worse yet, they cause confusion and cause their flock to scatter. A good example of this is a friend of mine from high school. He was good basketball player and had the talent to play on the high school team. Time and time again, his coach would say, “Great job!” And yet, my friend’s frustration would grow because he never really got a chance to play. Why? Well, really, because his coach did not tell him what he needed to improve. He was only told you’re doing well. You can see why he was frustrated… He needed his coach to help him see his weaknesses so he could improve. Shepherds are called to be good coaches. And that means good shepherds both affirm well and challenge well.

One question for us to consider this weekend is, “What do I expect of my parish priests?” And, more specifically, “what do I expect in my pastor’s homilies?” “Do I expect him to both challenge and affirm?” Before I go any further, I am not saying that priests should never preach on God’s love, or preach in uplifting ways, but if a priest is always giving homilies that are uplifting and proclaim God’s love, but never challenges his people, something is out of balance… He is called to both affirm and challenge. At times, homilies should point out bad behaviors that all of us can fall into. And homilies should challenge societal errors. Just like Stephen Curry, who needed his bad habits and weaknesses pointed out, we to need our spiritual leaders to do the same. If we as your priests don’t do this, then we are the people Jeremiah is talking to today. And then Jesus, does look down at all of you with pity, for the good people of God are [like] sheep without a shepherd.

With this in mind, I think we can consider two important things in our spiritual lives. First, I encourage all of us here, if we have ever heard a homily that was challenging, or that bothered you a bit, and it maybe left you a little angry with the priest, I invite you to reconsider that homily. What was it about that homily that bothered you? Is the Holy Spirit possibly convicting your conscience through that homily? And maybe, after considering this we will have a new admiration and respect for our shepherds, “Thank you Father, that you love us enough to challenge us even if its uncomfortable.” This is not easy for priests to do. Its much easier to avoid difficult topics, or topics that call people on to holiness. But here’s the thing, none of us should every feel like my friend from high school who couldn’t get playing time. None of us should never have to say, “I didn’t know that was a sin, or that this was wrong… Why didn’t someone ever tell me?”

The second thing for us to consider is this: Am I coachable? Am I, like Stephen Curry, willing to hear that I am not perfect, that I have flaws, and that these are being pointed out in my life so that I can do be better? Am I willing to hear that I have things I need to change, and that my pastor is called to point those things out for me.

This analogy works so well. All of us need good shepherds in our lives. All of us need people who are willing to say, “you know what, I love you, and I love you enough to tell you that you need to change this behavior, or bad habit.” If you do this, you will grow tremendously in your spiritual life. For this reason all priests are required to have a spiritual director, someone who challenges us to grow in virtue and to be more accountable. We can’t hold you to this standard if we don’t do it ourselves. Much like a player cannot become better unless he listens to the constructive feedback of his coach, we too cannot grow if we do not listen to out “spiritual coaches”; our good Shepherds.

So, friends, are you coachable?

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

You are a Prophet!

I feel a particular closeness to Christ today… I’m happy to be home, here at Holy Family Parish where I grew up, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some people here are thinking like our people in the Gospel, where did he get all this… Isn’t he just Mary’s son?   And so, no prophet is welcome in his native place!  I certainly do not feel that way when I come home.  All kidding aside it is great to be here.  But something important for us to notice is that just because the people were unable to hear the Good News from Jesus didn’t stop Jesus from teaching.  Nor did it stop Ezekiel.  Though the generation he preached to was rebellious, he was still called to be a prophet, to speak God’s word, so that regardless, they will know a prophet was among them…

Who is a prophet? Biblical prophets are those who literally speak God’s words to his people.  Biblical prophets from the Old Testament usually addressed the bad behavior and infidelity of the Israelites.  Often they predicted that if they continued this behavior, these bad things will happen.  Often, they did not listen and the bad things did happen to the Israelites; hence, the reason people think of fortune-telling as the function of a prophet. But, the real function of a prophet is to speak God’s words to His people—often words that incited conversion.

Most of us here are baptized Christians.  This means that all of us have received three fundamental characteristics at our baptism; priests (one who prays to God), king (loving service to others), and prophet (one who speaks God’s words).  This weekend, we are invited to consider our identity as prophets. So, I invite all of us to reflect on this question: Are we responding to our call to be a prophet in our world today?

Two reasons that we avoid our prophetic task. The first reason we avoid our prophetic task is illustrated in our second reading from Saint Paul.  He confesses to us, I, Paul, might not become too elated, because…, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated.  Paul is experiencing some battle with sin and the evil one.  He knows his weakness. All of us are like Paul, we are very familiar without weakness and capacity to sin.  This can be a deterrent for us when we feel called to prophesy.  We think, “how could I say something to that person when I myself have struggled with something similar?!?”  We feel like hypocrites Saint Paul tells us that is precisely in our experience of weakness, and our recognition of our need for God, that makes us qualified to prophesy.  This is what prevents us from pride.  Instead, we say to another out of love, and because of our own similar experiences, that he/she needs to change.

The other reason we avoid our prophetic task is that it puts us in the middle of conflict.  It’s easier to avoid the difficult conversations than to have them at all.  But here’s the thing, God might be using our voice to poke at the consciences of others.  As a priest, this is the most challenging aspect of preaching: “When should I challenge bad behaviors, sins, or societal sins (societal acceptance of abortion, deterioration of marriage, immigration policies etc.) in my homilies?”  There is a tension that exists here.  Some people in the pews want every homily to be about these issues.  Some people in the pews would rather that the homily never discusses these issues.  So the challenge for me is to discern, when does it make sense, in light of the Scriptures for that Sunday, for me to talk about these issues? The short answer is, there will be times when God will convict my heart and ask me to do this, and it will take courage to do so. 

Another example of how our prophetic task puts us in the middle of conflict is when we feel the need to challenge someone close to us.  For example, when someone in our family is struggling, maybe with substance abuse, they need someone close to them to say, “hey, we want to help you, because if we don’t address this, your life will continue to unravel.”  How sad it is when we don’t do this, and someone does spiral out of control. Or, another example that some parents experience.  A parent is disappointed that their child has decided to cohabitate with his/her significant other.  I have had many parents say to me, they are too afraid to say anything because they fear they will push away their child. This is the time to say something.  Too often we let the threat of conflict discourage us from prophesying to those in our lives.  

Friends, all of us, because of our baptism, are called to be prophets. We always have to do this with love, of course… But maybe God plans to use us and our own experience and relationship with a person, to help that person get back on the road to salvation.

And finally, not only are we called to be prophets for others in our lives, but we are also called to listen to the prophets sent into our lives.  Ezekiel shares with us in our first reading, Thus says the LORD GOD! And whether they heed or resist, for they are a rebellious house, they shall know that a prophet has been among them. These are some haunting words for us to consider from the prophet Ezekiel.  But the point is clear. We have been sent prophets, it is our duty to listen, no matter how challenging it may be.

So I close with this question for us to consider, How are we prophets for others, and are we listening to the prophets in our own lives?

 

In Christ’s Love and Friendship,

Fr. Stephen

Saint John the Baptist, a model to follow in the Christian life?

This weekend we have the privilege of celebrating the nativity of Saint John the Baptist on a Sunday.  Most often when a feast day for a saint happens to be on a Sunday, the celebration for that Saint is bypassed. Very few saints would actually “trump” the normally scheduled Sunday liturgy.  This, however, is one such weekend. And if we want more proof to just how important this day is, consider this:  Saint John the Baptist, is the only other person, besides Mary and Jesus, where we commemorate their births into this world.  For all other saints, we celebrate the day they died or their birth into eternal life

Today’s celebration of the nativity communicates something very important to all of us this weekend: that we are all created out of love by God, that we are to live confident in God’s love for us, and that the experience of God’s love calls us to respond; we are to do something!

Saint John the Baptist, thought precursor to the Lord Jesus, models for us how to live the Christian life. 

First, Saint John lived a life of relationship with his creator.- He knew his identity as a son of God and one who was made with intentionality and purpose by his creator.  **Sunday: The LORD called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name. He made of me a sharp-edged sword and concealed me in the shadow of his arm. He made me a polished arrow, in his quiver he hid me. ** Saturday: Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you. Our first readings speak to us about the intentionality by which God has created each of us.  Look at the details: ‘a sharped edged sword’, ‘a polished arrow’, ‘before I formed you I knew you’.  Thus, we joyfully pray the psalm: I praise you, Lord, for I am wonderfully made.  Friends, God wanted each of us here.  Each of us in an unrepeatable example of God’s creative love in the world.  Just like John, he created us too with intentionality and purpose.

Two scenes from the Gospels highlight Johns intimate relationship with God. In the Gospels, John identifies himself as the one crying out it in the desert.  Before he began his mission he spent time in prayer and fasting.  John had a mature relationship with his creator.  Do we have this intimate relationship? Many of us would say we desire a more personal,  more intimate relationship with our God.  Today, in the busy-ness of our lives and all the distractions (esp. technology) we can neglect our time for personal prayer.  And so, for all of us who desire this deeper relationship with God, we can imitate John the Baptist – Go to the desert – retreat from the world of distractions, busyness, and technology, and make a space for God in our hearts. Commit to some time of silent prayer and meditation each day.

The other scene of importance is when Mary comes to visit Elizabeth, and John leaps with great joy in Elizabeth’s womb.  It is this experience of life-giving joy that indicates an authentic relationship with our God.  Pope Francis does not mince words on this, paraphrasing he says, ‘If your not living your Christian life with joy, you’re doing it wrong.’

Finally, Saint John knew that his life was not about him. As you all know, today we are celebrating the nativity of Saint John.  But what you might not know is how much meaning is behind the date we celebrate this feast.  The other day was the Summer solstice, and now, every day going forward the days will get shorter until December.  Then Christ will be born, just after the winter solstice, and every day afterwards will get longer.  When people wanted to over glorify Saint John, he responded, I am not worthy to unfasten the Sandals of the feet of the one who is to come – He must increase and I must decrease.  Everything about Saint John’s life was meant to prepare the world for Jesus. It wasn’t about him. 

Friends, we are called to imitate Saint John the Baptist. Just as he pointed out Christ in a world that so badly needed him, so too we are called to point to Christ in our world today.  The only way we can show others to Christ is if we believe that we are sons and daughters before the Father, and have a relationship with the God we hope to make present.   

May we follow Saint John the Baptist’s example, and be Saint Johns among the world today, and proclaim, “Behold, that is Jesus.  He is the one who has saved you and loved you.  Go to him.”

 

In Christ’s love and friendship,

Fr. Stephen

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