Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Baptism of the Lord

Last Wednesday, Pope Francis spoke to crowds in St. Peter’s Square at his regular general audience.  He announced that he would like to start a reflection series on the Sacraments.  His first topic was Baptism, and remarked that the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord was soon approaching.  “To know the date of our Baptism is to know a blessed day. The danger of not knowing, is that we can lose awareness of what the Lord has done in us. Thus, we end up considering it only as an event that took place in the past.” 
  I was 15 days old when I was baptized on Aug 1, 1954 in the Church of St Peter in Chains.  I was likely baptized in private after Mass on that day.  I never knew the date until I applied to enter the Jesuits, as a candidate for priesthood needed to prove baptism.
   The first Sunday of Ordinary time celebrates the Baptism of the Lord.  Ironically, the way we were taught about Baptism hides one of the best teachings about this sacrament:  Our Baptism is more about the future than it is about the past. 
  We were taught Baptism was for infants, was meant to wipe away Original Sin, and was performed in private at the back of church.  However today’s Gospel from Matthew challenges all three of those and gives us a powerful message for tomorrow.
   -This Gospel story is not about an infant, but an adult who makes his own personal choice for Baptism.
   -This story is not about someone with Original Sin, but the sinless Jesus.
   - This story isn’t about a private ritual; it’s out in the open, affecting all sorts of people.
   And to further emphasize what Pope Francis says: your own Baptism is not just something that happened in the past; your baptism is more about what you intend to do tomorrow, in response to what God did to us long ago.  It is about tomorrow’s choices, based on yesterday’s call.
   If we turn around our perspective and see Baptism as oriented to the future, these common questions find appropriate answers.  First, this is a story about an adult.  Baptism has more meaning for us the older we get.
    It is not just one event at the start of life, but a series of reminders that every new day is a new chance to make a new decision for Christ, regardless of any past mistakes we’ve made.   Look at the fresh start Jesus gets at age 33:  “He came up from the water and behold, the heavens were opened for him.”  That opening is like the start of a new job:  opportunities were opened for him.  It is future-oriented for Jesus.  That step out of the water was only the first.  What is implied is that there was a second and a third, and on and on.   Same for each of us.  We have all travelled to so many places since Baptism.  “I have grasped you by the hand; I formed you, and set you as a covenant of the people, a light for the nations.”  However, if you have not yet brought light to other people as an adult Christian, or you feel a newer call to make further steps out of sin, today you can start afresh.
   Second:  This is a story about a sinless Jesus.  Why did Jesus go through with Baptism?  He had no need of repentance.  Jesus accepted Baptism not because he had past sins to remove, but because he was obedient to God’s plan for the future.  Yes, Baptism removes Original Sin, but where we go with that freedom is more important.  God is concerned not so much in our faults as in our future.  Listen to what his Father says after Jesus was baptized:  “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  The Father doesn’t say this just because he is pleased at all the things Jesus did in the past.  Jesus hadn’t started his public ministry yet.  The Father is pleased with Jesus because of what he will fulfill in the future.  He is happy Jesus showed up for work!  At the Jordan, the Father gives Jesus that green light of approval and confirmation… and the dove is the holy power to step forward out of the water into the world.  For us, Baptism was that same positive identity so that we could get started with a future.  It was a GOOD thing that you were baptized.  Similar to the time you learned to read and write.  Learning wasn’t so much about your success in first grade, but about what you can do with that power today and tomorrow.
   Third, this story has a public character, not a private one.  This first Luminous Mystery is not a personal reflection by Jesus but a public declaration of the work he has before him.  Once identified, what steps forward did Jesus take?  Isaiah says he was meant:  “to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement, and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.”  St. Paul adds to that:  “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.  He went about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”  Notice this New Testament feel of Baptism is not so much about what happened to a baby long ago, but what an adult might do with every new day opening before him or her.  Let me propose a similar question for your reflection:  Where do you want to go?
   One of the most prominent changes made in this church building following Vatican II was when the parish moved the Baptismal font front and center.  We bump into it when we enter church building.  It is designed to give us a reminder of the blessing we received from God:  the divine approval of our lives on mission.  And so let me offer a prayer suggestion as you pass that font, going in or out of church:  every time you bless yourself at the font, or pass by it, and listen for these words, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Insert your own name into the blank.  “This is my beloved ___, with whom I am well pleased.”  Take that blessing from the water and move ahead into the world.
   Here is how Pope Francis ended his speech last Wednesday:  “Let us, then, ask the Lord from our hearts that we may be able to experience ever more, in everyday life, this grace that we have received at Baptism. … And do not forget your homework today: find out, ask for the date of your Baptism. As I know my birthday, I should know my Baptism day, because it is a feast day.”

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Go Forth

First of all, I want to extend a great thanks to corporations like Kroger who bought the remaining Bengals tickets and gave away free seats so that we could watch the game, not blocked-out.  In fact, many of the tickets went to members of the military.  Nice going.
     I believe that same sentiment comes from the Holy Father, Pope Francis, if you read carefully his latest apostolic exhortation “The Joy of the Gospel.”  “Life grows by being given away, and it weakens in isolation and comfort.”
     The Holy Father encourages us believers to make a gift of our lives.  Giving away -- like the magi gave away gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  But I propose that:  in order to give, we first have to leave the comforts of our isolation.  We need to go forth.  Like the magi, we need to go forth into the world of the cold, the mysterious, into the worlds of the innocent, the suffering and the poor
     Have you ever heard the phrase "comfort zone?"
     Especially in cold weather, in an open football stadium, we are very aware of our comfort zone back at home.  But, more than just a warm living room, our comfort zone can be a place of fear.  It is often a place of security and complacency where we rest in habits tried and true.  The Holy Father says that our life of generosity weakens when we are isolated, and cut off from the real world in our own comfort zones.
     We don’t like venturing out of our comfort zone because it requires challenge, confronting the unknown, or giving away some of our comforts for the sake of others.  Many Catholic high schools try to encourage students to do service work, go on missions trips, and the like, in order to think outside the box, move beyond their comfort zone in order to live the Gospel.  In one sense, my accepting this role as pastor was a moving out of my comfort zone of the Chicago St Ignatius and coming to new place of challenge.
     Again, Pope Francis: “Indeed, those who enjoy life most are those who leave security on the shore and become excited by the mission of communicating life to others.”
     Today’s Gospel shows us three wise men who left security back on the shore, followed a mysterious star, and set out on mission to bring their gifts in service of God.
     And so message of the Epiphany is to take courage. Move outside your comfort zone.  Go forth and make your life a gift.
     The first reading from Isaiah speaks of our light that has come and “the glory of Lord that shines upon us.” This light shining through the darkness and the clouds is a wonderful image reminding us that we have indeed been showered with great gifts.  And as you know from the story of the kings, gifts are for giving.
     The psalm response focuses on the nations coming to adore the Lord.  “Lord every nation on earth will adore you” and then speaks of kings from foreign lands bringing gifts to the Lord.  They had left their comfort zone.
     The Gospel reading shows us the contrast between a man stuck in isolation, Herod, who is locked in his comfort zone, against the courageous magi who travel in mystery simply to pay homage (service) to someone poor and innocent.  After they go forth and pay homage to the newborn king, they travel even further out of their comfort zone and return to their country by another way.
     Continuing in his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis mentions three other figures from Scriptures who went forth into the world:  Abraham received the call to set out for a new land.  Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” out of his comfort zone.  To Jeremiah, God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go.”  The same call goes out to us to take on this missionary going forth.
     The Pope writes:  “Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the ‘peripheries’ in need of the light of the Gospel.”
What star do you follow?  Maybe it’s Pope Francis.  Maybe a saint or two?  A relative?  What are you reading or listening to that moves you out of your comfort zone?  That star the Magi followed is a reminder that we need divine guidance to find where Christ leads us. The bright lights of the commercial Christmas we just passed through can blind and distract us from seeing the real Messiah. So as the Christmas tree comes down this week, and decorations get packed away, find that interior light.  That star within which leads you outside your comfort zone so as to make a gift of yourself to those in distant lands.  Now, one last way I am going to step out of my comfort zone is to read an anonymous poem in my homily.  I found it but adapted it for today’s Feast of the Epiphany.  Hope you like it.

I used to have a comfort zone where I knew I wouldn’t fail.
The same four walls and busywork were really more like jail.
I longed so much to do the things I’d never done before,
But stayed inside my comfort zone and paced the same old floor.

I said it didn’t matter that I wasn’t doing much.
I said I didn’t care for things like mission work and such.
I claimed to be so busy with myself inside the zone,
But deep inside I longed to journey somewhere yet unknown.

I couldn’t let my life go by just holding gifts within.
I held my breath; I stepped outside and let the change begin.
I took a step and with God’s help I’d never felt before,
I kissed my comfort zone goodbye and closed and locked the door.

If you’re in a comfort zone, afraid to venture out,
Remember that the saints above were one time filled with doubt.
A step or two and words of prayer can grant you courage too.
Begin your journey with a smile; the gift is there for you!

Guide us to Thy perfect light.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Mother of God


“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death”
Sometimes we say the Hail Mary so fast, that we don’t take a second to examine the words and their meanings.  Why do we call Mary the “Mother of God,” and why do we say “at the hour of death”?

First, Mary has lots of nicknames: Immaculate Conception, Mother of Sorrows, Queen of Peace, the Blessed Virgin, Mother of Mercy, Our Lady (or in French Notre Dame), Our Lady of Victory, Lourdes, Angels, Fatima, Guadalupe, etc.  None of these titles is more important than Mother of God.

The Catholic Council of Ephesus decreed in 431 that Mary is Mother of God because her son Jesus is both God and man: one Divine Person with two natures (Divine and human).  He was a little boy born in a manger, and he is also the Supreme Deity and Creator of the Universe.  Therefore, Mary is both mother of a human and Mother of God.  And as Mother, Mary accompanies God with reflection, love, and prayer.  As an intercessor for us, her children, she prays for us now, and when we need her most (at the hour of death). 

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of death.”  The hour of death is another way of saying we need her prayers because it is highly likely that we had not used every waking moment for the praise and glory of God.  So, when we die, and realize how we had wasted our days, we sinners really need her support.  One of the biggest sins we commit is to let life slip away without our even knowing it.

I heard a story on NPR radio this morning about a new device that will be released this April.  It is called Tikker.  It is a watch device that counts down the days, minutes seconds and hours til your death.  “Now and at the hour of our death.”

It was invented by a Swede, Fredrik Colting, a former gravedigger who invented the gadget not as a morbid novelty item, but in an earnest attempt to change his own thinking.  He wanted some sort of reminder to not sweat the small stuff and reach for what matters. He calls Tikker, "the happiness watch."  It's his belief that watching your life slip away will remind you to savor life while you have it.

As a little experiment, I went to another web site called Death Clock.com where you can enter a few biographical details and determine your day of death.  My death clock profile says I need to be on the lookout for Saturday June 1, 2047, when I will be approaching my 93rd birthday.  I have over a billion seconds to live. The worst part: as I watched the screen timer count down the seconds, I felt like time was slipping away.  Which it is!  Another stark message:  YOLO (You only live once)!

Many people fear the moment of death, but I would agree with others that nothing is more terrifying than the thought of letting your life slip away without ever being who you wanted to be, doing what you wanted to do, or going where you wanted to go.
So, I need Mary’s prayers, not to step in at the last minute, but to step in NOW and help me appreciate the blessing of being Patrick Fairbanks.  I take inspiration from all three readings for the Catholic Solemnity observed on January 1:  Mary, the Mother of God.

First, the reading from Numbers is a blessing, taught by Moses to Aaron and other priests. 
The LORD bless you and keep you!
The LORD let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you!
The LORD look upon you kindly and give you peace!
Ever since the days of Moses, we are to see our lives as blessed.  A blessing in action. To the Mother of God we pray:  blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.  Appreciate every moment from your birth to your death as a blessing, so as to draw fruit from every second.

In the second reading from Galatians, Paul assures us, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son.”  So that means every second ticking by for us is not necessarily a threat but can be a drawing closer to God’s coming in fullness for you. Your death clock is not something to fear, but a favor.  Your life is full of grace: now, and now, and also now, and again now …

Finally, in the Gospel from Luke we read, “Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” As the Mother of God, Mary continues to reflect and pray.  She loves us and intercedes for us when our prayers and time seems wasted.  WE could call her Mary Help of Procrastinators.  That is why, when we close the Hail Mary, we use her most important title to ask her prayers for us sinners, we who waste our days and weeks with sloth or petty trivia.

We ask her prayers to help us appreciate every hour of this great life.  Until the hour when we meet the Lord face to face.   "And remember that I am always with you until the end of time." (Matt 28:20)

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Happy Birthday Francis Xavier

St. Francis Xavier, the great missionary saint of the Roman Catholic Church, was the son of Don John Giasso and Donna Maria d'Azpilqueta y Xavier; he was born at the castle Xavier, near Pamplona, Spain, on April 7, 1506, and is known to history by his mother's name.

At the age of eighteen he entered the University of Paris, where in due course he graduated, and then devoted himself to teaching. It was here that he became acquainted with Ignatius Loyola the founder of the Jesuits, who was then planning the colossal work which he afterwards accomplished. Xavier became one of the first nine of Loyola's converts, and the most enthusiastic of the little band. The date of the first vows by these early Jesuits was August 15, 1534, and the place as Montmartre near Paris. We also find Xavier at Venice with Loyola in 1537, where the visitation of a hospital for incurables was assigned to him. Here in the discharge of his duties he gave early evidence of his enthusiasm and self-devotion.

The Jesuits subsequently visited Rome, where John III of Portugal desired some of them for mission work in India.  Circumstances led to the selection of Xavier for the work. He left Rome in March 1540, and set sail on his 35th birthday April 7, 1541, for Goa, India— the chief city of the Portuguese possessions, where he arrived on May 6, 1542. From that time to the day of his death at Sancian, near Canton, on Dec. 22, 1552, he devoted himself to his work in a most heroic and devoted manner, visiting Travancore, Ceylon, Malacca, Japan, and other foreign lands with Cross in hand, and a burning zeal in his heart.

Xavier's life has been written by many hands. The roll of deeds which he is said to have done, and the miracles he is said to have wrought, even to the raising of the dead, is long  Many of the alleged facts are open to the gravest doubt, and others are beyond belief. The hymn associated with Xavier's name is, "O Deus ego amo Te, Nec amo Te ut salves me.” The hymn may possibly be his as it breathes his abnegation of self in every word, his spirit in every line.

O Deus, ego amo te,
Nec amo te, ut salves me,
Aut, quia non amantes te
Æterno punis igne.
Tu, tu, mi Jesu, totum me
Amplexus es in cruce;
Tuliste clavos, lanceam,
Multamque ignominiam,
Innumeros dolores,
Sudores, et angores,
Et mortem, et hæc propter me,
Ac pro me peccatore.
Cur igitur non amem te,
O Jesu amantissime,
Non, ut in cœlo salves me,
Aut ne æternum damnes me
Nec præmii ullius spe;
Sed sicut tu amasti me?
Sic amo et amabo te,
Solum quia Rex meus es,
Et solum, quia Deus es.

This hymn was translated by Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

O GOD, I love thee, I love thee-
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.
Thou, thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails, and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu, so much in love with me?
Not for heaven's sake;
not to be out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and I will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then?
For being my king and God. Amen.

Happy birthday Francis Xavier

Friday, December 28, 2012

P.S. I Love You

Earlier this month, I finished a five day silent retreat at the Trappist Monastery of Gethsemani, just south of Louisville.  I am still glowing in the graces.  One of the little unexpected joys from this retreat came as I was trying to fall asleep one night.  I was reading a few chapters out of Thomas Merton’s No Man Is An Island, when I came across a page that drew me in to a brief meditation of love and great memories.

Understand: the book I was reading was one I brought with me.  It was published in the 1950s or so, and had been a lying around our family home in various bookshelves for decades as I was growing up.  Someone probably gave it to my dad.  Recently, our family homestead had undergone a few renovations, and in the cleaning, some of these old volumes were sitting out.  I decided to snatch this Merton book and take it on retreat.

So there I am reading in bed when I turned the page and found a little surprise: a child’s name scribbled at the bottom.  Not just any child, but my loving sister Jane had scribbled her name in that book when she was three.  Whatever theological or metaphysical stuff I was reading at the time just drifted away.  My memories took over and conjured up an image of little Janie sitting in the living room at 501 Beal, randomly pulling books off the shelf, inscribing each one with her name.  She probably had just learned to print it and so wanted practice.

For my money, back then in … oh, 1962… she was directed by her Guardian Angel to plant a little surprise for her big bro Pat.  The angel told Janie that the surprise wouldn’t be found for another half a century.  But Janie didn’t care.  She just wanted to write her name and see how cute it looked amidst all the other high-brow talk about God.  Little did Janie know that her message meant more to her big brother than anything Merton could write.

I laid the book down, and for the rest of the evening last night, I enjoyed so many other memories about my little sister, her hand-made doll house, Barbara Pengy First-Step and several other Christmas scenes from the past.  God knows how to get through to us, even in print.  Happy New Year to all.

PS: I Love you Jane!


Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Two Of Us

In Catholic news reports lately, I have been reading about the Vatican's critical "doctrinal assessment" of women religious groups in the U.S.  Seems like American nuns and sisters are being under-appreciated.  You can get an update here.

This leads me to say a few words of appreciation about two women religious who have had a great influence on my life.  These are my two aunts:  Aunt Therese and Aunt Peggy.

Aunt Therese is my father's sister.  She is now Sr. Mary Joseph, O.P., a Dominican cloistered nun who lives in a contemplative community in North Guilford, CT

The charism and mission of her community is to serve the Lord in perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Aunt Peggy is my mother's sister: Sr. Margaret Sehlstedt, M.M., a Maryknoll missionary sister who spent may years working and teaching in Japan.  Her current mission is to care for my mother in Hamilton, OH.  Her community has sent her to care for the elderly in a very specific way.

Both these women have been models of faith and religious commitment for me ever since I was a boy.  I certainly owe much of my Jesuit vocation to them.  I tell people I fall right in between their theological trends:  Therese on the right, and Peg on the left.  Can there be a Jesuit firmly planted in the middle?  Hard to say.

Thank you, lord, for the example and service of these two great women.  May the seeds they planted grow deep and bring to harvest the greatest of shrubs and trees for birds and other singing voices to give God praise.
_________________________

“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, 'How many good things have you done in your life?' rather he will ask, 'How much love did you put into what you did?”
Mother Teresa

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Real Love

June 15, 2012:  The Church and loving believers recognize the upcoming Feast of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus.  What does that mean?  Basically, that the love you feel for those you've met thus far, is all a part of God's loving plan to take you for His own.  We are here for His honor and glory, and he brings us together for His Father.  Simple.

See you in Church!

In the words of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.:

The world-zest
The essence of all energy
The cosmic curve
The heart of God
The issue of cosmogenesis
The tide of cosmic convergence
The God of evolution
The universal Jesus. . .
Focus of ultimate and universal energy Center of the
cosmic sphere of cosmogenesis Heart of Jesus,
heart of evolution,
unite me to yourself.