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.

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