Monday, June 30, 2014

Farewell to St. Joe's Imperial

During the Mass on Holy Trinity Sunday (14 June 2014)

+ Today is the 3rd anniversary of my first mass here at St. Joe’s. Has it really been three years?
My 3rd anniversary…. for many of you who thought I was 18 when I arrived, this means I’m finally 21 years old!

I remember my first days pretty well.

-- Fr. John threw me the keys and said, “Good luck!” (He was going on vacation).
-- I remember my first 5pm homily – I remember that, before I had even started, a man in the front row opened up his bulletin and began to read it. (And that brought an end to bulletins before Mass!)
-- I remember wondering whether I would ever fill Father Nemeth’s shoes.

Despite the rocky start, as I look back on these past three years, I have found it to be full of blessings. Just the sheer numbers of things are amazing:

- 20 weddings and exactly 100 babies baptized; 1,550 Masses—which, if you go to Mass every Sunday, would amount to 30-years worth!
- I can’t count the number of confessions that I’ve heard, but it is in the thousands.
- And I’ve also realized I have written over 300 pages of single-spaced, 12 point font, homilies. Yeah, we know, Father Gerber….

I don’t remember every blessing of my 1,097 days here, but I remember how at the end of many of those days, I would fall asleep thanking God for his many blessings.

- I thank God for that moment of joy when I was on the playground field as the 4th grade cheered in delight that a guy in a black dress would punt a soccer ball as high as the tower.
- I thank God for that moment at the Miriam dinner when 30 junior high girls saw the beauty of God’s calling, and in that same moment, a few moms rediscovered the beauty of God’s grace;
- I thank God for that moment when I laughed myself silly because my office staff was conspiring to put random smiley faces in the bulletin, just to see if people were paying attention.
- I thank God for that moment when a 5th grader came to me crying because she wanted so bad to come to Sunday Mass, but her parents wouldn’t take her. She opened my heart and strengthened my resolve.
- I thank God for that moment when me and parishioner, who was not happy with one of my homilies and having come to me to talk, began a friendship that continues to this day.

I like to think that, over the past 3 years, I have grown as a priest. I know a lot of you take pride in the fact that “we broke father in.”

As I look back and see my growth, I realize I have learned many lessons—many of which I have shared with you. Of all of these, there is one more I wish to share. There’s a little back-story to it.

Way back in the Autumn of 2011, while you were trying to break me in and praying that I’d grow, I also started to quietly pray at every Mass for the growth of the parish. Then, on Holy Thursday of the following year, during the consecration, and clear as day, God spoke to my heart, saying: Are you willing to suffer?

For those who have heard my vocation story, you know that this question is an important one to me. To hear it again—well, it got my attention. There’s a lot to say about it, but I’ll simply say this: God was reminding me that if you want conversion and growth, you are going to have to suffer for it. This is because growing does not come without growing pains.

Growing in holiness will entail suffering for holiness. Growing in love means suffering for love. Growing as a parish means suffering for a parish.

Even the phrase “breaking a priest in” involves the painful word: breaking.

The growing depends on whether or not we are open to the suffering of the breaking—of whether or not we see the suffering as a possible growing pain. And not only that, but also whether or not we love.

When we love, we are willing to suffer.

I mention this because, during the past three years, I know that all of us have suffered one way or another—through physical ailments, through grieving over a loss, through changes at the parish, through advancing in the faith while others stay content where they are. In this suffering there has been much breaking.

The question, then, is whether or not there is growing.

Growth only happens when we have the faith, hope, and love, to embrace the breaking as the doorway to growth.

In other words, we grow only when we count the Cross a blessing.

Let’s take this truth for a spin.

What if we count the Cross a blessing?—the scandalous, rugged, painful cross? Doesn’t it mean that if we count even the Cross a blessing, then we can find the blessing in anything? Even a horrible 20-minute homily has a blessing in it: and that might be the blessing of growth in the virtue of patience, or growth in more fervent prayer for your priest. How marvelous!

When even the Cross is counted as a blessing, then any suffering can be transformed into growing.

Thus, if we can see the great blessings that reside within suffering, and that within it is the key to unlock a new springtime of growth in our parish, then we will not only endure suffering—but we will actually consent to it. That is the key: We will choose to carry the cross.

“Are you willing to suffer for the parish?” Yes, Lord!

One of the blessings of this consent is a deeper communion with God and with one another. How much gratitude I have and how much more united I feel with those parishioners who I know have suffered for me and this parish!—even when those same parishioners differ with me on some of the finer points of parish life. Knowing that we were suffering for the same God and the same parish united us.

Suffering has a way of doing that—not just because misery loves company. Rather, it is because suffering for love bridges a gap. It bridges brokenness. Suffering for love helps us to grow.

This is at the heart of today’s Solemnity. Today is the solemnity of the Holy Trinity: a celebration of who God is: that, in his very nature, He is an eternal communion of love.

This is related to and sums up everything I have said up to this point. How so?

Because the Holy Trinity shows us, through Jesus Christ, that entry into this communion comes by way of the Cross. “Follow me” Jesus says—follow me into this communion. Take up your cross and suffer for love. Grow!

Right now, there are many people in this parish—some who aren’t able to be here today because they are sick at home—who are consenting to the Cross and uniting their sufferings to Christ and winning for us the graces that sustain this parish and will make this parish a better place. They embody what it means to be united in one body, one body in Christ. They know the value of suffering: they see that suffering can be the growing pains for communion.

That’s the last and greatest lesson that I can give to you.

I thank all of you who suffered for me, and who suffered me, and who continue to suffer for my salvation. There are too many of you to name. I hope I brought you closer to heaven. You broke me in—which is to say that you brought me closer to God and to heaven. Should I make it there, I know that I will spend my eternity praising God for you and for your sacrifices for me to get me there. Let us be united always in our prayers and in our sufferings.

I leave you with a few verses from one of my favorite movies, White Christmas.

            When I worry and I can’t sleep
I count my blessings instead of sheep
and I fall asleep counting my blessings.

If you’re worried and you can’t sleep
just count your blessings instead of sheep

and you’ll fall asleep counting your blessings.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Who God Wants - Homily on the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul

Good morning. If you weren’t here last week, I’d like to introduce myself once more: I’m the new guy, Father Gerber. And thank you for your amazing welcoming during my first two weeks here!

If you’ve been so blessed to go to Rome, you have probably seen St. Peter’s basilica and perhaps St. Paul Outside the walls. These basilicas are so beautiful in every way: the sheer size and the gold bespeak something divine. And that they are dedicated to the Apostles Peter and Paul bespeak something amazing about Peter and Paul: they were ordinary men transformed by extraordinary grace to do things only God could do: walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead, set the world on fire with the Holy Spirit. They would even give their lives for this. The beauty of the basilicas remind us of their extraordinary lives and their extraordinary calling to be the pillar and foundation of the Catholic Church.

However: If we would have met Peter and Paul before they encountered Jesus, we wouldn’t have chosen them for such an extraordinary task. Peter was just a fisherman—what did he know? what skills did he have to lead the Church? Sure, he is ambitious, but how weak his faith was at first! He would even deny God at the most decisive moment in human history! And Paul? Paul was educated, sure, but he was nuts! When we first meet him, he is killing Christians! Surely, there were better men out there for God to choose from! Men more skilled, men more holy.

But God’s like: “No. I want them. I want these guys.” To which I respond: God, who is in charge of your HR department??!?

It is here that we come to a truth about God: God does not choose the qualified. He chooses those whom He wants.

While this is a comfort—especially to those called to lead the Church—it is also a scandal. I mean, doesn’t God know that choosing oftentimes inadequate men—sinners, really—doesn’t God know that this will lead to a PR nightmare? I think of St. Peter: how many times he stuck his foot in his mouth! If I were a disciple, I would turn to Jesus and say: Ok, Jesus, Peter has done it again… how many times does this have to happen before you realize that you can do better?
            But I want Him. And he is going to be the Pope.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather choose the perfect.  The skilled. The good looking. The already-holy. The last one I would choose would be the inadequate, the sinner. But that is often whom God chooses.

I take this to prayer. God, why? And as I prayed on this, I realized something: Our God is a God of hopefulness. Hopefulness? Yes. After all, is there anything more hopeful than the belief that a great sinner can become a great saint? In today’s Solemnity, we celebrate precisely that: that God has transformed these two sinners into great saints; that God has chosen two men who, in the eyes of the world, had no business being the foundation of the Church to be precisely that: the foundation of the Church! Great sinners chosen to be great saints!

This alerted me to the fact that within the very bedrock of our Church is a foundation of profound hopefulness. That the Stone which the builders rejected can indeed become the cornerstone. Yes, our God is a God of hopefulness!

There is one problem with this. And that is that God’s hopefulness can seem too hopeful—foolish, really. Unrealistic, and ultimately unbelievable. And not just in regards to whom He chooses to lead the Church, but also in regards to whom He chooses to become saints.

As a priest, I go to many wedding receptions and backyard bbqs. And when I’m there, more often than not, there is table tucked away in the corner—the table of “the sinners”: the relatives that have fallen away or the self-proclaimed “Bad Catholics.” I make it over to that table and they are usually being assisted by a few “beverages”… they start to vocalize the problems of the Church or, more they start telling me about their sinfulness—or the sinfulness of the person next to them!

“Father” they say, “you don’t want to sit at this table. We’re a bunch of sinners.” Or, “Father, you might want to close your ears…”

They bare their guilt to me, but they have also turned it into a mask: that, deep down, what they are saying is, “Father, there’s no hope for us. We’re sinners. We can’t change.”

But it is precisely these that the Lord wants!

I want to say to them: Do you realize that you are the ones God wants? Do you realize the hope that god still has for you? After all, if Paul could kill Christians and if Peter could deny Jesus—and yet both of them be redeemed and still chosen for great holiness—then isn’t there still hope for us too?

Perhaps the hopefulness of God isn’t so unrealistic after all.

When I realize the hope that God has in me, I react as Peter did. He said, “Depart from me, Lord; for I am a sinful man.” Lord, depart from me; I am a sinner, I can’t lead your church. Lord, depart from me; isn’t there someone better whom you can choose? Or, Lord, I am too old; I’m an old dog and I can’t learn new tricks. Lord, don’t you know the depths of me and my capacity to sin?

But God, in His hopefulness and love, want us to know the heights of His ability to save and transform you. Yes, he knows our sins; yet he says nevertheless: I choose you anyway.

I want to do great things through you. Let me turn your cross into resurrection.

My life has changed because of this. I will save you the details of my past for now, but I will say that when I realize that God wants me, not only am I filled with hope, but I am also quicker to see others as people whom God wants. As a result, I am quicker to be patient, quicker to forgive, quicker to focus on the light of grace and potential. Ultimately, I am quicker to smile to the people at the bbq table and say “You know, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. So maybe God wants you. Maybe he hasn’t given up on you. So don’t lose hope. God wants to transform you!”

Let us therefore bring to this altar all who need that transformation—family, friends, co-workers… whoever it is (and maybe it is us!... and me too!)—bring them here and ask St. Peter and St. Paul to intercede for them. God wants them. Sinners... into saints!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Homily for Pentecost - Unity and Diversity in the Old and New

I wrote today’s homily from my office which is now mostly empty. A new priest will be in this same office in just over a week, just as there was Father Goldian and Father Nemeth before me.

Just like our parishes, each one of us priests has a different personality and a different set of strengths and weaknesses. It is as Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthins: “there are different kinds of spiritual gifts … different forms of service … different workings.”

And yet, Paul writes that we are one body in the Lord.

Thus, there is a tension: between having many different gifts and yet still being united and faithful in one body. But how does this work? Don’t differences bring division?

+++ Paul’s analogy is very helpful here. Imagine an athlete: let’s say the basketball player LeBron James. He has spent his life practicing basketball, shooting countless freethrows, endlessly practicing footwork, lifting weights each day so that each limb of his body is perfectly in tune with his heart and mind such that he executes with precision his every move on the basketball court. His limbs are tried and tested, each gifted with a certain purpose. And when his body does what he wants it to do, his team usually wins a championship.

The problem comes when a part of his body cramps up—which is what happened in the NBA Finals this week. When he was benched, LeBron was frustrated because as much as he wanted his leg to move, the leg wouldn’t move. (And I’m told that this happens a lot in old age).

Unity of the body, therefore, requires that each member of the body, while ordained to do different things, do the things that the mind and heart—or the spirit—of the body desires them to do. A cramped leg doing its own thing does not help with unity.

Paul applies this to the Church: while each of us have different gifts and workings, it is only when we are united to the Holy Spirit and doing what He wills that we are united as one body. When we are off doing our own thing, we bring harm to the body and keep it from achieving greatness. We would be a leg cramp.

+++ During the past five decades, the Catholic Church has suffered from a spiritually cramped leg, particularly in precisely what it means to be united to the one body of Christ and yet to be a member with diverse gifts.

This spiritual cramp is most clearly seen in how people treat what is old—not old people, but teachings and traditions that are perceived as old. There are many who speak with disdain about the “old ways” and the “old church” and we find them grumbling against anyone who likes these “more traditional” and “old fashioned” things.

Such members, in their zeal for the new and the progressive—thinking that new must be better—
actually do harm the unity and diversity of the Church. This is because unity is not limited to simply holding hands with the people of the church in our generation, but unity also means being united to the people of the Church of all generations—to our ancestors who built up our faith and to the Holy Spirit who gave such “old fashioned” and “traditional” gifts to our ancestors in the first place.

St. Francis of Assisi, St. Vincent de Paul, St. Therese of Lisieux, and even Mother Theresa—they were all raised by these “old traditions” of the Church. The men that stormed Normandy on D-day—mostly Catholic—were raised by these “old traditions.” So, when people talk begrudgingly about a “pre-Vatican II” church, they are dividing themselves from the vast majority of saints.

Indeed, there is not a pre-Vatican II church, nor is there a post-Vatican II church. There is only one holy Catholic Church united by the Holy Spirit whose many diverse gifts span throughout all generations.

+++ When I discovered these “old” traditions and teachings—like veiling statues during Lent, Latin and chant, having a Mary statue that looks like a queen, traditional marriage and so on—When I discovered such “old” things, it was like discovering my great-grandfather’s memory box in the attic. How could I treat my great-grandfather’s memory box like junk? Certainly, here were treasures! And if I didn’t understand them, then that wasn’t an occasion for me to throw the box away, but to ask questions. And when I asked questions, I discovered not only what these treasures meant, but I also discovered more about who I am—because who I am is tied up with who came before me. Suddenly, my experience of life was not bound simply to the church since 1970, but I was now experiencing a greater diversity: a church of all the ages!

Understanding the treasures given in the past helps me to live a treasured life now. So, these old fashioned teachings and traditions were not only treasures ever ancient, but treasures ever new.

+++ This is important for our future. Look at our world: is it any coincidence that our world has become so messed up in the precise moment that so many of our church members turned aside traditional teachings and worship? Perhaps our future depends on whether or not we recover the gifts that the Holy Spirit has given our Church.

Of course, when it comes to old fashioned and traditional teachings, we are told to be “Be less judgmental, less discriminating.” And for a while, the Church tried this approach. So have I. But as I have tried this approach, I have come to a certainty: the reality is is that the issue isn’t only about how we say something, but that we are saying anything at all.

The world would have us be quiet. But as we see in Pentecost, the Holy Spirit would have us speak up. He is the ancient one and his teachings may sound “old,” but his voice is new and what he brings is newness and renewal.

We can’t be afraid of the old. We must not be afraid.

+++ I started this homily by talking about the priests that have come before me and the priests that come after me. While we are different in our gifts, I hope that we priests at this parish have been united in passing along the perennial teachings and traditions of the Church; for I too am a member of this body.

It is precisely these treasures—ever ancient and ever new— which are the gifts that are given to me at my ordination. As a member of the body, my duty to the body is to teach and protect these treasures. Indeed, the gift of ordination is a gift meant to help protect the very unity and diversity of the Church— it is the gift that protects the unity of the Church: a unity that spans the centuries and to the end of the world, a diversity that is rich in treasures every ancient and ever new. If I did not do this, I myself be suffering from the spiritual leg cramp—and I would bring division to the body.

I ask you, therefore, to pray for us priests. And to pray that all the Church may be conformed, not to the spirit of this corrupt generation, but to the Holy Spirit who is God, the source of our treasured diversity and our holy unity.