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