Sunday, October 8, 2017

Everyone Is Welcome (There Are No Exceptions)


The Roman Catholic Church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate. There are over 17,000 permanent deacons in the United States and over 42,000 worldwide. I have been proud to be one of them since my ordination in 1992.

After marrying my sweetheart, Wanda, in 1968, and raising our four children, one of my greatest blessings in life was finding and joining Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish. At a time in 1984 when I was disheartened by events around the world, and even within the Catholic Church, I found this warm and inclusive parish.

Each Carmelite priest, Franciscan sister and Sister of Saint Joseph I’ve met here has been a living example of God’s love. And you, the members of our parish community, have consistently reflected the face of Christ.

Over the years there have been many special moments when I was filled with gratitude for being here at Mount Carmel. One of those was the moment I walked into the narthex, the vestibule - as we used to call it back in the Bronx, and read for the first time the plaque that holds our welcome statement:

No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’re from, no matter where you’re going, no matter how good or bad things seem, you are always welcome.”

The message on that wall is clear: We are all children of God; we are all brothers and sisters. Everyone is welcome. There are no exceptions.

But sadly, not every Catholic has heard that message; not every Catholic has felt welcome in every Catholic Church. I have friends who are gay or lesbian, and friends who have children who are gay or lesbian or transgender who have felt unwelcome; who have been hurt; who have been made to feel unworthy of God’s love.

The idea that anyone is ‘unwelcome’ or ‘unworthy’ because of who they are, is contrary to the Jesus we know in the gospel. In his day the people of Samaria, the Samaritans, were despised and avoided as unclean by the majority of the Jewish people. Yet Jesus not only sits down and chats with a Samaritan woman, and reveals his divinity to her, but he makes the hero of one of his best-known parables a Samaritan.

In another gospel, Jesus encounters a Roman centurion, a pagan, someone completely outside of his religion. Jesus speaks with him, heals his servant, and praises his faith. No strings, no conditions.

And how about Zaccheus, the despised tax collector who climbed out on a tree limb to see Jesus without being seen by the townspeople? Jesus not only recognized and acknowledged his goodness in front of those same townspeople, but he went to his home and broke bread with him. No strings, no conditions.

So for Jesus, there is no “us” and no “them.” There is only “us”.

The gratitude and pride I felt in reading that welcome plaque in our narthex has been intensified in recent years by the outreach and example of our Church leaders. Pope Francis and our local archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Tobin, are among many of our pastoral leaders welcoming, embracing and respecting all God’s children, whoever and wherever they may be. They have been reaching out with loving inclusiveness to our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community. And they are role models for us to do likewise.

Here are some examples:

(from the New York Times 6/13/17)

On May 21 Cardinal Tobin personally welcomed over 100 gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics and their families, from the five dioceses of New Jersey and surrounding areas, to a pilgrimage Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral Basilica in Newark. They were seated on folding chairs in the sanctuary in front of the altar. “I am Joseph, your brother,” he told them. “I am your brother as a disciple of Jesus. I am your brother as a sinner who finds mercy with the Lord.”

Bishop Manuel Cruz, rector of the cathedral, and eight priests concelebrated Mass. Bishop Cruz told the people that the cathedral doors were always open to them “because we are children of God and our identity is that we all belong to him.”

(from Time Magazine July 28, 2015)

In 2013, Pope Francis ushered in a new era of welcoming people who are gay when he asked these two rhetorical questions: “If someone is gay and searches for the Lord and has good will, who am I to judge?” and “Tell me, when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?”

(In 2016, Pope Francis wrote these words in his apostolic exhortation on family life, “Amoris Laetitia” - The Joy of Love)

“ We would like before all else to reaffirm that every person, regardless of sexual orientation, ought to be respected in his or her dignity and treated with consideration, while ‘every sign of unjust discrimination‘ is to be carefully avoided.“

(Father James Martin, editor-at-large of the Jesuit magazine America, was appointed in 2017 by Pope Francis as a consultant to the Vatican’s Secretariate for Communications. In his 2016 book “Building A Bridge” Father Martin wrote)

“. . . respecting L.G.B.T. people means accepting them as beloved children of God. The church has a special call to proclaim God’s love for a people who are often made to feel like damaged goods, unworthy of ministry and even subhuman by their families, neighbors or religious leaders. The church is invited to both proclaim and demonstrate that L.G.B.T. people are beloved children of God.”

(Father Dan, writing in our parish bulletin, tells us that)

both Pope Francis and Cardinal Tobin have given very clear signals that reaching out to our brothers and sisters in the LGBT community is the next step we should be taking in the long and checkered history of our Catholic faith.” He reminds us that: “Our parish that proclaims as part of our identity and mission the statement that all are welcome here needs to continually demonstrate it.”

Some might argue that our Holy Father and our archbishop and other church leaders are too liberal; that they are moving too quickly, not focusing on or emphasizing the timeless and changeless rules and regulations of the Church.

Others might say that these gestures are shallow, condescending and patronizing; too little, too late; that nothing has really changed in church doctrine; that the LGBT community is welcome only so far.

So, what are we to say?

Sometimes throughout history, and even in our own lives, there is conflict, there is tension between who we are and the boundaries of society, and even our Church. But in the final analysis we are called to follow our conscience and to be true to who we are.

Jesus taught us that to have eternal life we only have to do two things: love God with our whole heart and love others - all others - the same way. Everything else is passing.

Life isn’t an either/or proposition; it’s a both/and reality. We are called to love and to live within the tension of the both/and as we, and the Church, move forward in time.

Parish outreach programs to the LGBT community vary but they have a common thread of welcome, support and the sharing of stories. As a parish family, let us continue to reach out and welcome all of God’s children without exception; let us continue to reflect the face of Christ; and let each of us be a living example of those words on the wall of the narthex:

No matter who you are, no matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’re from, no matter where you’re going, no matter how good or bad things seem, you are always welcome.”

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Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on Amazon.com:

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life


The Gospel of You, The Gospel of Me: Making Christ Present in Everyday Life



Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

Monday, June 19, 2017

Called to Mirror the Fatherhood of God


‘Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.’ Jesus gave us a wonderful gift: he brought God into the center of our lives and taught us that he is like a loving father. Today is Fathers Day. It is a good time to remember that each and every one of us — male and female alike — is called to mirror the fatherhood of God.

It is a great joy for me as a deacon to baptize a child. The joy of administering the sacrament is magnified for me by the fact that I am a father myself. Wanda and I have been blessed to raise four wonderful children; and I know — first hand — the joys and responsibilities of being a parent.

The greatest responsibility of a parental father is to mirror the unconditional love of our heavenly Father. Fathers have been given a very special mission in life: We are called to teach our children that God is unconditional love.

And we carry out this mission, we teach that lesson, not with books, not even necessarily with words; we teach it by loving our children, unconditionally, without strings, no matter what.

God loves us in a personal and unconditional way. The seed of that love is inside of each of us. And that seed is watered to grow into a beautiful flower by the love we receive from our parents.

But that flower can still grow even in the absence of parental love, even in the presence of abuse, or abandonment, or neglect. That flower can still grow even in the harshest conditions; because that seed is innately watered by God’s grace.

That flower blooms in our lives when we make the transition from receiver to giver. When we say ‘yes’ to the presence of God’s love in our life, and when we choose to share that love with others.

I have known people who have suffered greatly because they did not experience the love of a parental father. But I believe we have a choice: we can spend decades in depression over what we missed as a child, or we can cross over the bridge, make the transition from receiver to giver and become a father for others.

We can become a father for others not only in a parental way. We can be a father to our children, but we can also be a father to our workers, our students, our patients, our clients, our parishioners, our friends, to all those with whom we interact.

This type of father is neither male nor female; it is the bearer of unconditional love, it is the mirror of our heavenly Father.

God's love comes alive in our world when we let it flow through us to others. So this Fathers Day let us thank our heavenly Father for our blessings. Let us reach out to our parental fathers, living and deceased, with love and compassion, and if need be, forgiveness. And let us make Our Father who art in heaven visible here on earth through the love that we share with others.



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Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on Amazon.com:

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life


The Gospel of You, The Gospel of Me: Making Christ Present in Everyday Life



Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry
http://www.amazon.com/Synchronicity-Work-Holy-Spirit-Spiritual/dp/1463518781/

Monday, May 15, 2017

Just to Follow My Friend


    (reflection by Deacon Lex at 25th Ordination Anniversary Mass)

There’s a song by Christopher Walker that Peter Coll, our Music Director, often plays during Mass. The song is entitled, “Because the Lord is My Shepherd” and its refrain sums up why I became a deacon:
Lord, you are my Shepherd,
You are my friend.
I want to follow you always,
Just to follow my friend.

I have felt the Lord’s presence throughout my life as my friend. He has been with me at the heights and in the pits; when I felt joy and surrounded by love, and when I was depressed and felt lost in the universe. I want to follow him always, just to follow my friend.

My life has been blessed in so many ways: I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, and a permanent deacon in our Catholic Church. Each day of my life I thank the Lord for his friendship, for my sweetheart Wanda, for our children and grandchildren, and for the love of so many souls I’ve met along my journey.

I was so very fortunate 25 years ago to be planted here at Mount Carmel: to serve you, my sisters and brothers in our parish community; to have the friendship of the many Carmelite Fathers who have served here over the years, and the five wonderful pastors who have been our shepherds: Fathers Bob, Kurt, Ashley, Leonard, and now Father Dan.

It’s a privilege and a joy to serve alongside Father Emmett, Sister Regina, and Sister Nora, and my brother deacons, David and Michael.

Thank you, Wanda, for your love and for being my best friend throughout these first fifty years of our marriage and thank you for your unwavering encouragement and support of my ministry as a deacon.

Thank you, Lord, for my life, for my family, for the gift of faith, and for all my blessings.
Lord, you are my Shepherd,
You are my friend.
I want to follow you always,
Just to follow my friend.



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Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on Amazon.com:

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life


The Gospel of You, The Gospel of Me: Making Christ Present in Everyday Life



Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry

Monday, March 27, 2017

Lent Calls Us to Holiness and Holiness Calls Us to Forgive



“Forgiveness is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.”
*
Lent is a special time of year, a gift that the Church gives us. It is a reminder that each of us, without exception, is called to holiness. And what is ‘holiness’, really, but ‘wholeness’: being all-together in body, mind and spirit; being totally connected with God. No fractures, no splinters, no divisions.

Over the last three weekends we have been reminded that Lent calls us to Holiness. And we’ve heard that holiness calls us to Listen to what Jesus tells us in the gospel and to Repent for the times when we have failed to embrace and share God's love. But there is still one more thing that holiness calls us to do - it calls us to Forgive.

In 1956, Dag Hammarskjold, who was then Secretary General of the U.N., commenting on the meaning of forgiveness said, “Forgiveness is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.” This is the kind of forgiveness that holiness calls us to embrace. It is the act of letting go of the past and accepting someone back into our heart.

But it’s not so easy to do. To genuinely forgive someone in the way that Jesus calls us to, we must be willing to accept the reality that a person’s faults and personality quirks will probably not disappear overnight. Jesus asks us to forgive even when the person who hurt us is not sorry; and even when we know that despite someone’s sincere apology, they are likely to hurt us again. He asks us to look into the eyes of someone who has hurt us deeply and to show that someone love and acceptance rather than anger and rejection.

To forgive like this is a choice that God gives us. When we forgive, we are choosing life, and love and a relationship for ourselves and for others. We are relieving ourselves of the burden of carrying around anger and bitterness. And we are giving someone else the freedom to live out his or her life - or maybe to rest in peace - with the knowledge that they are loved without strings.

By so doing, we are opening the door for true healing to occur: healing within ourselves, healing within another, and healing within a relationship. We are opening the door for holiness.

I minister as a hospital chaplain for our sisters and brothers who suffer with emotional and psychiatric illness. Some have been institutionalized for a very long time and we have formed friendships over many years. Others have had a temporary breakdown as a reaction to a deep personal loss or some severe stress. 

As people share their stories, I have seen that many who suffer like this are carrying a heavy burden - they are unable to forgive.  Sometimes it’s another person: someone who has hurt, betrayed or abandoned them. Sometimes it’s God who is blamed for taking a loved one away in death. Sometimes it’s even oneself.

The latter case, the inability to forgive oneself, is one of the most insidious causes of depression. It stops us from finding peace and from trusting in God’s love for us; and it keeps us focused on ourselves. But how do we forgive ourselves when we are carrying around guilt and shame?

There’s a wonderful short story by the Japanese Catholic novelist Shusaku Endo that speaks to this kind of forgiveness. The story is entitled The Final Martyrs* and it is set in 17th Century Japan during the persecution of Japanese Christians. I’d like to read a brief summary of this powerful story.

In those days, the Emperor had declared it a capital offense for a Japanese to practice Christianity. At first hundreds of people were crucified, burned at the stake, broiled on wooden gridirons or thrown alive into sulfur pits. As the persecution wore on and countless Japanese martyrs held to their faith, the government became more and more enraged and sadistic. It tried to make Christians deny their faith by the cruelest of tortures, and those who renounced Jesus publicly were allowed to go free.

Endo’s story is about a group of young adult Christian men who have known each other since childhood. They belong to a village that has secretly practiced Christianity for more than 100 years. One member of the group is named Kisuke. As a child he was big, awkward and accident-prone. Being ridiculed often, Kisuke reached adulthood with no self-esteem. As they grew up secretly practicing their faith, the other young men often predicted that if they were ever to be caught by the government and tortured, Kisuke would quickly renounce his faith and betray Jesus.

The government learns about the village from an informer and it is raided and burnt to the ground. Kisuke and his friends are arrested and confined to a tiny cell to await torture. His friends remain steadfast in their faith and urge Kisuke to pray to Jesus and Mary for strength.

But listening to the screams of those being tortured becomes too much for Kisuke. Before his turn comes, he cries to the guards that he is ready to renounce his faith. He leaves his cell in shame never able to look back upon his friends. The other young men are tortured brutally but no one renounces his faith.

For the next two years they are moved around Japan from prison to prison. One by one they begin to die until only two remain. After witnessing so much suffering, their faith has weakened and they are close to despair. And then one day they see a tall awkward figure being led to their cell — it is Kisuke.

After he is shoved into their cell by the guards, his friends ask him how he ended up being brought back for torture after having renounced his faith. Kisuke tells them how he wandered around Japan for two years filled with shame for betraying Jesus. Until one night he could no longer bear it.

He stood alone weeping on a desolate beach preparing to end his life. He cried out to the ocean: “Oh, if only I had been born a different person. If only I could have been strong and brave like my friends instead of the worthless coward that I am.”

From behind him, Kisuke heard a whispering voice. It was the voice of Jesus: “It’s alright, Kisuke. I understand. Just go back to be with the others. Even if the fear and the torture are too much for you to bear and you have to betray me again, it’s alright. Just go back to be with the others.”

And Kisuke did go back.

His friends’ faith was renewed by Kisuke’s story along with their love for him. As his turn comes to be led to torture, his friends tell him, “It’s alright, Kisuke. Even if you have to betray him again, the Lord Jesus is happy. He is happy that you just came back.”


There have been moments in my life when I felt like Kisuke standing on that beach; when I looked at my life and reflected on the times I had betrayed Jesus by failing to love and be present to others. But it is in those painful moments of self-reflection that I can hear Jesus whispering to me.

He asks that I just come back and try again; that I let the process of transformation unfold over time - his time not mine; that I understand that the miracle of Jesus is not immediate perfection but rather a lifelong process of falling on the floor and getting right back up again.

Like Kisuke was filled with shame and self-doubt, we sometimes hear a little voice in our mind that keeps putting us down; a voice that tries to make us stop following Jesus by telling us that we are not good enough, that we are filled with blemishes, that we are worthless. But we know that voice is lying. You see, we’ve been to the beach; we’ve heard Jesus whispering to us - and we will never be the same again.    

This Tuesday evening we will have a communal Penance service. The sacrament of Penance is a gift that Jesus gave us. It brings about healing and wholeness in our soul. Let us give ourselves the gift of this sacrament. And as we ask for God’s forgiveness, let us open our up hearts and forgive those who have hurt us. Let us make amends, where possible, and forgive ourselves for any thing we’ve done or failed to do that may have caused hurt and pain to others. Let us place any guilt and shame we’ve been carrying into the loving hands of God and trust that we are truly forgiven.

Lent calls us to holiness and holiness calls us to forgive - to forgive others and to forgive ourselves. “Forgiveness is the answer to a child’s dream of a miracle by which what is broken is made whole again, what is soiled is again made clean.”

* Endo, Shusaku. The Final Martyrs. New York: New Directions. 1959.

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Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on Amazon.com:

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life


The Gospel of You, The Gospel of Me: Making Christ Present in Everyday Life



Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry
http://www.amazon.com/Synchronicity-Work-Holy-Spirit-Spiritual/dp/1463518781/

Monday, January 23, 2017

Monkey Butt


If God really loves us so much why does he allow bad things to happen?
+

Before retiring I worked for many years at Hackensack University Medical Center. At least once each day I would ride the elevator in The Tomorrows Children Building. Frequently I would share that elevator with young children who were very, very sick.

One day I stepped into the elevator with a young boy, about five years old and his mother. He was in a motorized wheelchair and appeared to be paralyzed from the neck down a condition I assumed had been present from birth. He was unable to speak but could mouthed words that his mom could understand.

I was overcome by a feeling of pity for the boy and his mother; and in my head I started asking a recurring question, “Why God? Why do you allow such suffering exist?”

I was distracted from my thoughts by the laughter of the boy’s mother. She giggled to her son, “No, you’re a monkey butt!” His eyes were bright with laughter as he mouthed the words back to her, “No, you’re a monkey butt!”

This playful bantering between a mother and child, who obviously loved each other very much, kept up as she wheeled him off the elevator to whatever life-sustaining treatment he was getting that day.

As I stood alone in the elevator I realized that I had been in the presence of God. God was very much there in the flow of love between that mother and child. No matter how much pain and anguish lived in that mother’s heart, no matter how debilitated that little boy was, their hearts were totally open to each other, open wide enough to share the gift of laughter and silliness.

God was present in the center of the cross that was shared by that mother and child, just as surely as he is present in the center of the cross that hangs over our parish altar. Our loving God is with us in the midst of all the bad things, all the suffering we experience.

And in witnessing that scene and experiencing that presence of God between mother and child, I can almost understand why God permits suffering.

The bad things that happen in life and the sufferings that we experience are locked in a moment in time. Yet God, as well as each one of our immortal souls, is timeless; and God is with us here in time, holding our hand through the suffering.

Some day, when we are free of the constraints of human existence and the limitations of human understanding, it will all make sense; there will be a happy ending – or more truly, a happy beginning. If we could see eternity and the timeless love that awaits us with God, the sufferings that we witness and endure here in life might more easily be understood.

God is so good to us that he gives us a preview: he shows us his face in the suffering. All we have to do is look; all we have to do is listen. God is present in the simplicity of the wind. God is present even in the silliness and the laughter of a word like ‘monkey butt’.

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Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on Amazon.com:

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life


The Gospel of You, The Gospel of Me: Making Christ Present in Everyday Life



Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry
http://www.amazon.com/Synchronicity-Work-Holy-Spirit-Spiritual/dp/1463518781/

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Time



Jesus said, “All that you see here - the day will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone.” Will you and I be ready to face that day when it comes?
*
On November 20th we will celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday in the Liturgical calendar and it marks the end of the Church year. The Church has been preparing us for this for weeks with readings and gospels that speak about the last days, the end of time as we know it. 

We can look at this Sunday’s gospel as a prophecy about the end of the world. We can see it as foretelling a cataclysmic moment in human history where the righteous will be swept up into heaven, and the not-so-righteous swallowed up into hell. Or, we can see it as a wake up call, a reminder that through our Baptism each of us has been hired by Jesus to be a construction worker, a builder, of the Kingdom of God - and time is running out.

No one knows how and when the world will end. What we do know is that time, our own unique individual time, will come to an end some day. The end of the world will happen for each of us the moment we cross the threshold from life into death. And when our end time does come, we will be asked to account for what we did with the precious time we were given.

I believe that when we die each one of us will sit alone with God in a little room and watch the video of our life. And in that video we will see where we loved and where we failed to love. And sitting there next to God, the source of all goodness and love, we will judge ourselves on how much we loved - really loved; how much we forgave - really forgave; how much we helped others to find goodness and healing and wholeness in their own individual lives, their own unique circumstances.

The Church, in preparing us for the end of the year with these readings, is helping us call to mind our own mortality, our own inevitable end time. None of us knows how much time we have left. As we open our eyes each morning, God gives us 1,440 brand new minutes to use. We can use them with love to heal our world and cherish our relationships or we can waste them with bitterness and anger.

The great thing about the end of the Church year and the reminder about the end times, is that we still do have time - time to love, time to forgive, time to come outside of ourselves and be present to others. We have this gift of time to fix whatever is still broken in our lives; to heal any damaged relationships; to make ourselves whole.

Like Jesus says in this Sunday's gospel, “All that you see here - the day will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone." We don't know when the end of the world will come but we do know that it will come for each of us. And when that day does come, all that will remain for eternity is the love we gave while we still had time.

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Readers of this blog might enjoy these books by Deacon Lex. Both are available on Amazon.com:

Just to Follow My Friend: Experiencing God’s Presence in Everyday Life


The Gospel of You, The Gospel of Me: Making Christ Present in Everyday Life



Synchronicity as the Work of the Holy Spirit: Jungian Insights for Spiritual Direction and Pastoral Ministry