"Zeal for your house will consume me" (Ps 69:9)

Thoughts of a parish priest…


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“You’ve got a friend in me”

As we enter into the holy season of Advent, we prepare ourselves for the Christmas, the birth of our Lord, Jesus Christ – the most wonderful time of the year. But we all know the holiday season can often times be a struggle for many people for one reason or another. Perhaps divisions within a family, economic worries, or being alone can make this a rather difficult time of year for some. And so as we finish up thanksgiving and enter into Advent, let us consider ways in which we can reach out those who may find this time of year difficult.

I was thinking about this the other days while watching the movie, “Toy Story 3.” Now one may be tempted to laugh here, but the movie, as was the case with the first two films of the trilogy, provide an interesting insight to the concept of friendship.

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“You’ve got a friend in me” is the theme song from this popular animated trilogy, and it touches upon what the Vatican praised in the children’s film, namely true friendship.

Personally, this is one of my favorite animated films and I could not agree more with the Vatican’s newspaper L’Osservatore Romano which commended the film for providing a profound reflection on “transcendental human themes and lessons on true friendship through the experience of the characters.”

In the movie, Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the other toys are confronted with their destiny. Andy, their owner has grown too old to play with his childhood toys and is preparing to go off to college. He must decide whether to donate the toys to a day care center or throw them away.

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When circumstances beyond their control separate the friends, they do all they can, including risking their own lives to stay together and ensure the safety of the others. The movie exhibits the spiritual reality that true friendship is following the example of Christ who said that there is no greater love than to lay down ones life for a friend.

Reporter Gaetano Vallini explains that “Toy Story 3” reveals that “friendship is the true bond of this unlikely yet tight-net group of toys” and allows the moviegoer to reflect on “important themes such as the value of friendship and solidarity, the fear of feeling alone or rejected, the unavoidability of growing up and the strength that comes from feeling like you belong to a family.”

As the movie draws to its end, the toys are all confronted with a disastrous end. Instead of panicking or screaming out in fear, they simply reach out and hold each other’s hand to endure such an end together. This simple gesture provides us the example of what it means to be a true friend.

There are many things that cause people to feel alone or helpless. Many times there is nothing that we can do to “fix the problem” but there is something that we can do to help those that we care about to face their challenges by finding strength in the reality that they are not alone.

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The feeling of being alone, helpless, without hope can be one of the most crippling feelings that one can experience in life. They are often times the result of the loss of a loved one, separation or divorce, or a variety of other human experiences. Many of us struggle to find the right words to say to our friends in pain, as if there were right things that could be said.

In these moments, we don’t need to say anything, but the image from the movie does provide us something we can do. We can reach out and hold the hands of our friends, letting them know by this simple gesture that they don’t have to go through it alone. This simple act of love and friendship is what Christ asks of us when he says, “Love one another as I have loved you.”

The Old Testament book of Sirach also provides a wonderful reflection upon the concept of friendship. The author writes, “Let your acquaintances be many, but one in a thousand your confidant. When you gain a friend, first test him, and do not be too ready to trust him. For one sort of friend is a friend when it suits him, but he will not be with you in time of distress.”

But, “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter; he who finds one finds a treasure. A faithful friend is beyond price, no sum can balance his worth. A faithful friend is a life-saving remedy, such as he who fears God finds; For he who fears God behaves accordingly, and his friend will be like himself” (Sirach 6, 6-17).

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One may be reading this and ask what does friendship have to do with becoming a better Christian or in particular a better Catholic. The concept is certainly not exclusive to the Christian faith, but by becoming a better friend to those who are most in need, we become more like Christ who always sought out those who felt abandoned, alone and without hope. Being a Christian means following the example of Christ!

In just a few days we enter into the season of Advent, Christmas and New Years. This can often be a time where many people feel most alone or depressed. This can be a time of year that is not the most joyful time of year for those who have no one with whom to share it. Perhaps this means that we open our homes and our hearts to those that need a true friend in their life. Perhaps it means that we reach out and hold the hand of those who need us most. Perhaps we know someone who needs to hear the words, “You’ve got a friend in me.”


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The heart of education, is the education of the heart!

I absolutely love being pastor of a parish with a school! I truly believe it is one of the greatest opportunities a parish has for evangelizing and passing on the Catholic faith.

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But passing on the faith is not just passing on information about Jesus and His Gospel, but it is about forming hearts and minds. It is about helping people, through God’s grace, to be transformed into disciples of Jesus Christ!

Obviously to do that effectively, those responsible for passing on the faith must first be transformed by God’s grace themselves – they must be disciples and friends of Jesus Christ, living the faith in a dynamic way!

I am reminded of the words of Pope Paul VI, “Modern Man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he listens to teachers it is because they are witnesses” (Evangelii Nunitiandi, 41).

One person who understood this very well, even though he lived before Paul VI was even alive was St. John Bosco, one of my favorite saints.

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This 19th century saint of Turin (northern Italy) known as the “Father of youth.” He born in 1815 to poor parents in a suburb of Torino, the youngest of 3 boys, whose father died when he was only 2 years old.

As a child, he was an extremely sensitive kid, who was very unique and had particular care for others, especially those who were marginalized. He also had a great love for the Catholic Faith.

Bosco was about nine when he experienced his first extraordinary dream. This first dream, the most important one, set the course for his whole life. He tells us of it in his autobiographical Memoirs of the Oratory.

He saw himself playing with a crowd of neighborhood boys; many of them were fighting and swearing. He told them to stop, then leapt in with both fists when they did not. Suddenly a stranger, a noble and radiant gentleman, appeared. He told John that he needed to use kindness, not blows, to win over these children. John did not understand. The man said he would give him a teacher, and a majestic Lady showed up.

She instructed John to watch, and the boys turned into wild animals—bears, goats, dogs, cats, etc. “This,” she told him, “is your field of work. Make yourself humble, strong, and energetic, so that you’ll be able to do for my children what you’ll see now.” And the beasts turned into gentle lambs. In his confusion, John began to cry. The Lady assured him that in due time he would understand. And he woke up.

This became more real as he became older and saw the economic troubles and the oppression of children who were forced to work in factories. They were stripped of dignity; they lost their childhood; they did not experience being loved.

Bosco began to establish oratories as places for them to be loved as children should be and educated in the faith, in academics and in different trades.

He believed that he should teach them to be not only good Christians, but also good citizens – teaching a way of life and forming their hearts!

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Within a few years, more than 600 boys were coming to him every week for spiritual guidance, education, fun and to be loved. Every Sunday they would gather for Mass, Confession and recreation.

Throughout the week he would educate them academically and well as catechize them. St. John Bosco dedicated his whole life to the education of the young and it was in this context that he understood and achieved his call to holiness.

God made him a saint through his unique vocation to be a educator of hearts, recalling that, “The heart of education is the education of the heart.”

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I remember visiting the oratory that Bosco had started in Turin and praying in the room where he died, with a window overlooking the playground where the boys would gather each day. His dying words capture his life’s work and mission, the form the hearts and minds of the children, helping them to be good citizens and good Christians. His dying words were, “tell my boys I will be waiting for them in heaven.”

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It is the role of every priest, catholic school teacher and catechist to form the hearts of the children entrusted to them. Through the intercession of St. John Bosco, may we all do just that!

 

 


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Healing in America: Christ is our Hope

 

National holidays such as today (Veterans Day) give us an opportunity to reflect upon who we are as Americans and the virtue of patriotism. In the last few weeks and months, the things that divide us have taken center stage, and now even after the presidential election, it continues. As I was thinking about this this morning while saying my prayers, I thought about Pope Benedict XVI’s Papal visit to the United States during April of 2008.

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The pilgrimage was focused on the Successor of Peter bringing a message of hope, healing and reconciliation to a country much in need of these three things. I think it is worth going back to what our Holy Father said to us as American Catholics during those very special days.

In preparation for this visit, the pope explained the central them of his trip: “I have chosen as the theme of my journey three simple but essential words: “Christ our Hope!” I come to United States of America as Pope for the first time, to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition. Yes, Christ is the face of God present among us. Through him, our lives reach fullness, and together, both as individuals and peoples, we can become a family united by fraternal love, according to the eternal plan of God the Father.

Upon his arrival in Washington D.C., Pope Benedict was greeted by President Bush who warmly welcomed him at the White House. In his opening remarks, the Holy Father said, “I come as a friend, a preacher of the Gospel and one with great respect for this vast pluralistic society. America’s Catholics have made, and continue to make, an excellent contribution to the life of their country. As I begin my visit, I trust that my presence will be a source of renewal and hope for the Church in the United States, and strengthen the resolve of Catholics to contribute ever more responsibly to the life of this nation, of which they are proud to be citizens.”

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Over the following days in both our nation’s capitol and in New York, our Holy Father did not shy away from addressing the challenges and problems that the Catholic Church in America continues to face. He spoke about a growing materialism, the deteriorating state of marriage and the family, the lack of priestly vocations, and declining mass attendance. Our Holy Father reminded our bishops of their role in engaging in dialogue in the public square, but also reminded each of us of the great responsibility that comes along with the freedom and rights that we enjoy as Americans.

In the open air Mass at the Washington National’s Stadium Pope Benedict returned to the idea of hope. He recalled the rich tradition of hope that America was built upon explaining that, “Americans have always been a people of hope: your ancestors came to this country with the expectation of finding new freedom and opportunity, while the vastness of the unexplored wilderness inspired in them the hope of being able to start completely anew, building a new nation on new foundations.”

But he further explained the Christian virtue of hope – “The hope poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the hope which supernaturally purifies and corrects our aspirations by focusing them on the Lord and his saving plan – that hope has also marked, and continues to mark, the life of the Catholic community in this country.

In New York, Benedict XVI became the first pope to enter into and pray inside a Jewish synagogue in our country. He also engaged in several interreligious and ecumenical discussions striving to deepen and strengthen relations between people of faith. “Only by “holding fast” to sound teaching (2 Thess 2:15) will we be able to respond to the challenges that confront us in an evolving world. Only in this way will we give unambiguous testimony to the truth of the Gospel and its moral teaching. This is the message which the world is waiting to hear from us. Like the early Christians, we have a responsibility to give transparent witness to the “reasons for our hope.”

On the final day of his trip, before the open air Mass at Yankee Stadium (though I am sure he isn’t a Yankee’s fan), Benedict made a solemn and prayerful visit to ground zero. In the place marked by intolerable violence and pain, our Holy Father knelt in prayer remembering those who lost their lives to terrorism. Once again, Benedict pointed to Christ as the source of our hope!

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May Benedict’s historic visit to America, his clear articulation of the Gospel, his message of hope and his call for a greater fidelity to the Gospel remain ever fresh in our minds. May it also be a reminder to all of us to work toward reconciliation and peace, for we are one nation under God.