Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Consecrated Words

So, after almost 5 months of being a priest, I hit my low. It was bound to happen but, now that I've canvassed a few other Jesuits, it seems that my experience was pretty unique. Thus I share it with you, the readers, inasmuch as it gives me an opportunity to set it out in writing and provides me some distance from the events.

This morning I was the celebrant at a Veteran's Day mass at a downtown Boston parish. It was a really wonderful gathering of people and there were quite a few members of our Armed Services in attendance. Indeed, the deacon of the Word and our homilist was himself a veteran. In my mind, it was a great honor to be able to preside at a liturgy in honor of so many - including Grandpa Duns - who had given so much for our country.

During our celebration, one member of the congregation began to speak directly to me from the congregation. His words were hard to hear and I'm reluctant to duplicate them. Suffice it to say that they were not words one would normally expect to hear during the Eucharist.

His words began as a quiet litany of curses and threats as kept saying, "I'm going to kill you, priest." When I came down to receive the gifts at the offertory, I could still hear him swearing and threatening and I did my best to put it from my mind.

During the Eucharistic prayer, as I held out the chalice, I made eye contact with him. As I recited the words:

Take this, all of you, and drink from it,
for this is the chalice of my blood,
the blood of the new and eternal covenant,
which will be poured out for you and for many 
for the forgiveness of sins

and, as I spoke, he amplified his mantra, "F*#@ You! You F#*!! I'm going to Kill You!" He said other things, too, but I reckon you can fill in the words using your imagination. 

I will admit that I was frightened. I will admit, too, that I was extraordinarily sad...because I don't know what pain this man experiences. I can chalk it up to mental illness but, at the end of the day, I really don't know why he said what he did, but only that he did. 

This is not the sort of thing they prepare you for in your liturgy courses! As I was reminded tonight by other Jesuits, he could have had a knife, or a gun. My reading, at least at the time, was that he was harmless...but I didn't know that for sure. I did what came naturally as a high school teacher: I added no energy to the system. Nevertheless, while outwardly calm, inwardly I was a wreck and could but one thing:  I redoubled my prayer. I asked the Lord to allay my fears and to accept these words...terrible part of the community's offering. Whatever pain he feels, I hope, can be taken up and transformed by the power of the Spirit. 

At the end of Mass, before the final blessing, he left in a rage and shouted out further terrible words as he walked down the aisle. In some ways, I was embarrassed by what he said. And when he finally left the church and walked outside, I didn't feel relieved. I felt...and continue to feel...sad.

And I've been sad all day. I'm troubled and I keep second-guessing whether I acted and responded appropriately. Should the police have been called as a precaution? Should I have stopped the liturgy to speak with him? Could I have done anything? 

On one level, this man's words had no place in least, we would like to think. We often come to church with the "right speech" and would never dream of swearing. On another level, though, I wonder if this man's prayers - as disturbing and hurtful as they were - were not just what were needed to be brought to the altar. He didn't come with pious platitudes but with rage and anger. That is what he could offer and as a priest it is the gift I had no choice but to accept. A bitter draught to swallow and coarse bread to chew, but it is what he brought forward.

Was this what we would want to call "hate speech"? Maybe. It is speech coming from a fellow traveller who suffers in some way? Yes. That said, even if it were the ravings of a deeply disturbed person, it's what he brought to the Eucharist today. This was his - admittedly hard to hear - offering at Mass.

Quite audibly, at least to those of us on the altar, his words mingled with mine at the consecration; his pain intertwined with the church's prayer. I offered the "fruit of the earth and work of human hands" and he added the pain of a human heart. If the offering of bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ, then I trust his words can be taken up and transformed from a litany of hurt into a song of healing and praise. 


Mind you: I don't take it personally. Whether it were me or any other priest, I bet he'd have acted the same. But it's hard to think that someone could be in so much pain that this is how it would have to be expressed. 

Ah well, it's not yet 9:00 and I'm tired. I'm also aware that it's a long time since I've posted. I apologize for my silence but know that it has been time well spent as I continue to read and study for my PhD and work as a priest here in Boston. I pray regularly for those who continue to accompany me on this journey and I hope, in time, to resume writing with more regularity. 

Monday, October 05, 2015

A Jesuit's Guide to Writing College Recommendation Letters

I remember quite clearly how exhilarating it was to be asked by a first-semester high school senior, “Hey, Abba, I was wondering if you would write a college recommendation letter.” I took it as a sign that I’d arrived as a teacher: this student trusted that I would be able to present him well to college admissions committees.

The novelty began to wear off after I received six more requests that day. Some students were very formal in requesting a letter, others much more casual. Having agreed to write six letters and with the prospect of more coming, I knew I needed to find a way to work efficiently and practically. What I offer, then, is the fruits of a great deal of trial-and-error.

Before You Begin to Write

Being asked to write on a student’s behalf is an honor. If you do not feel capable of writing a letter that will portray the student in the best possible light, you owe it to the student to be forthright and decline the invitation. Sometimes I simply didn’t’ know the student well enough to write about him; in one case I don’t think I’d have found a single nice thing to say about a kid. Rather than string him along, I simply said that I didn’t feel capable of writing a letter that would portray him in his best light and tried to help him find a teacher who could do a better job.

Once you have agreed, you should tell the student that you will not write until you have been given all relevant information. I always asked for a copy of the student’s CV, his application essay(s), and a list of the schools he wanted to attend.


Having read the information, I posed three questions to myself:
1.     How have I come to know this student in a unique way? What is it that stands out?
2.     What does this student offer to a prospective college or university?
3.     Where does this student still need to be formed?

Let me take each of these in turn.

How have I come to know this student in a unique way? What is it that stands out?

To the best of my ability, I try recall something defining about the student. Writing on behalf of a kid who had lost a student senate election, I started out, “_____ is a loser.” I then said that he had, in fact, lost an election but showed such grace and character in his defeat that I came to see him as a young man of tremendous integrity. In another situation I wrote, “Every time ________ raised his hand, a knot developed in my stomach because I could never anticipate where his question might lead the discussion.” This gave me an entry into talking about the student’s sharp intellect and incisive ability to raise questions.

Of course, not every student elicits this sort of narrative. But through your own experiences and with the personal statement you have been given, you should be able to assemble some sort of snapshot that gives the reader the impression that you offer credible testimony. One extraordinarily introverted student wrote beautiful poetry, so I began by saying something like, “____ is a volcanic introvert, silently throwing forth obsidian poetry born of extreme internal temperatures.” Some kids have a great smile, a fun personality, or a generous heart: the writer can give an impression, a snapshot, of the student to help humanize the reams of data the admissions committee must pore over.

What does this student offer to a prospective college or university?

In light of everything you know of the student, what does he or she offer to a university? Why would a school want this kid? Is she a passionate researcher? A devoted writer? Can you see in him the prospect of a great doctor, a fabulous teacher, or an artist? If the student wants to be an English or History major, and you’ve taught that subject, can you say something how the student thinks and how this might contribute to the field? If the student is a bundle of energy and a total gadfly, perhaps you can suggest that this is the sort of kid who is the embodiment of hospitality and who has a gift for making those around him or her to feel comfortable.

This is why, to my mind, it is so important to be judicious in agreeing to write on behalf of a student. You should be able to know the student in a way that permits you to anticipate how the student will bring her gifts and talents to an institution. Ask yourself, Why would the school want this student? What’s the selling point?

Where does this student still need to be formed?

As a Jesuit priest, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Sometimes letters are so full of encomiums and plaudits that it’s almost like the student is running for Savior of the Universe rather than gaining admission to a university!

Every one of us is a work in progress and we are always in the process of formation. As you look at this student, use your imagination: where does this kid need still to be formed? I often introduced this paragraph by saying, “_______ can be challenged to grow in the following ______ areas.” I would then describe those places where he still needed to grow. “Gifted with a tremendous intellect, he can often be impatient when other students do not pick up material as quickly as he does. He will thrive in small classroom discussions where he will rub elbows with students possessed of equal passion and skill.” See how that works? I can still “sell” the student while showing that he’s yet a work-in-progress. Ideally, an admissions committee will want to hear how the student is going to benefit from attending their school.

The admissions process often encourages students to own their triumphs and their gifts. A good letter of recommendation is capable of giving a more well-rounded and holistic portrait of the student, permitting readers to see depth and potential the student himself or herself might not see. As with all things in life, one must use judgment and discretion. Especially in addressing a student’s weakness, try to show how this area is not a liability but is actually a place where a school can fit a need and do the work of forming a young life.

Ancillary Thoughts

 It is my firm belief that no letter should go beyond one-page. As I sketched the questions, there are three distinct thoughts that I try to articulate. One thought, one relatively short paragraph. After the final paragraph, I give something a final commendation. “_____ is a kind, talented, and wonderful young man. I commend him to your university with great joy and no reservation.” “Although ____ has had many struggles, the upward trend of his performance and his growth in maturity leave me little doubt: he will continue to grow and flourish and I encourage you to offer him admission to your school.”

Whatever you do, do not use a form letter. I think it is better to tell a student a firm “No” and help him to find another writer than to use a form letter where you cut-and-paste names. I have seen it and I feel sorry for those students.

At the risk of sounding sentimental, I consider writing these letters as a spiritual practice. When I sit down a student’s file and have a chance to think about how I’ve come to know him and have seen him grow, it’s hard not to marvel at how much impact we can have as teachers. These letters are spiritual testimonials, ways of celebrating where a kid has been and where the student is going. Because I see this as an often under-appreciated dimension of cura personalis, I took great delight in writing for these young men. Indeed, very often I found myself consoled and really rooting for the kid when I had finished the letter.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

FULL EPISODE: The Jesuit Rec Room w/ Caroline Myss

For those interested, this is the full video of the video of our recent interview with Caroline Myss:


Grade 25

Last Monday I began what, I believe, is my 25th academic year. Unless I am somehow called by a sick twist of fate, this will also be my final year as a class-taking student: next May I will begin to study for my comprehensive exams, so won't be doing any coursework in the 2016-2017 year. And, since I'm mentioning educational streaks, I think today is going to be my 22nd consecutive Mass of the Holy Spirit. Since my freshman year at Saint Ignatius High School, this has been the customary way of marking the beginning of the academic year. Even in those (admittedly few) years I was not enrolled in school, I still found my way to the celebration of this Mass at one of our institutions.

As of this morning, I'd say I'm now 75% settled into my new community. It's been a bit of a transition to move from full-time pastoral ministry this summer to full-time studies while having to unpack. Small things - like the complicated mail system - has made the shift more onerous. For instance, I ordered a pair of shoes that were delivered in a timely manner but, since the company didn't indicate on the mailing address that I'm in the Jesuit community (which I indicated on the order), the package languished in the mailroom for almost two weeks before we went back to find it. Not a major problem, to be sure, but an inconvenience nonetheless.

This semester finds me taking 2 independent reading courses and one seminar. I love having the chance to spend my time with an author and it's a treat to read through Rahner, Charles Taylor, and Bernard Lonergan without feeling rushed. Consequently, my days are spent going over texts and thinking a great deal about how these thinkers speak to the situation of theology today. It may sound boring to sane people, but I've never put in a claim on sanity.

Otherwise, there's nothing much to report. I've been happily engaged at the parish and will begin to assist with some student masses here on campus. We'll see how the Spirit moves me to write as the semester progresses, but I don't feel pressure to write. If the blog rests fallow for a few weeks, don't think of it as an abandonment but, rather, a period of incubation as I continue to get my thoughts in order.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Jesuit Rec Room: Featuring Caroline Myss

I don't think it'd be an exaggeration to say that this was the most transformative summer of my life. I'm glad now to be settled in back at Boston College and I feel ready to tackle my last year of formal studies.

If you have a moment, take a look at the attached video. For those who notice such things, it was Caroline Myss who insisted I re-name the blog to "The Tin Whistle Priest." You'll get a sense from watching the video just how persuasive she can be!

On episode two, Radmar Jao, S.J. and Ryan Duns, S.J. (blogger from The Tin Whistle Priest) invite Sr. Nancy Sylvester, IHM (former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious) and NYT bestselling author Caroline Myss into the rec room to talk about the power of prayer. The group discusses why and how they pray, the signs of prayers being heard and answered, and how to move beyond petition prayer to a place of true personal transformation. Also covered is the “crisis of self-isolation”, Nancy’s work with the LCWR, and the question of therapy replacing needs formerly met at church.
Episode two airs on Catholic TV on Monday August 31st at 10:30PM EST, and Thursday September 3 at 5PM EST and anytime starting August 31st at
For more information on Caroline Myss and her online reflections course on spiritual direction, visit

Monday, August 03, 2015

When Shame is a Sign of Grace

Exhorting a crowd gathered in Rome, the Holy Father made the following remark:
It’s true that when we go to the confessional, we feel a bit of embarrassment, and that happens to everyone, to all of us, but we have to recall that this shame is also a grace that prepares us for the embrace of the Father, who always forgives and always forgives everything.
Almost two months into priesthood, I can say there is hardly a more profound experience than to help another person come to know God's boundless and merciful love through the sacrament of confession. More than once have I watched as a person seems to become physically lighter -- slumped shoulders cease curving -- as they unburden themselves from the weights they carry.

Oh, and people carry the weight of sin around with them. I know, I said it: the dreaded s-word: sin. Though it's not a popular or trendy word, it remains nevertheless true that each and every one of us is freighted with the baggage of sin. We try to walk the path of discipleship as a follower of Jesus Christ but we fall off the path, wander into the thicket, and emerge covered in the muck and mire of life. But when we are aware of this residue, this spiritual baggage we've picked up along the way, it makes following the Lord increasingly difficult. Shame becomes an obstacle to the path of joy.

There's a trend in society and certainly in some theological circles to diminish, if not erase, the sense of shame. We decry "body shaming" or "fat shaming" and, to be sure, this is a good thing: we should not hold up for mockery any other person. That said, the experience of shame for what one has done is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very good thing: it means one's conscience is at work and that one can recognize that one needs healing.

If you had a gaping wound on your forehead, you'd probably not think twice about having it seen by a physician. The story of how the wound came to be might be embarrassing (you fell down while drunk), but the pressing issue remains to treat the wound and restore health. Some of my friends who are emergency physicians have shared that while they, at first, were shocked by what brought people into the ER, they are seldom fazed any longer. Some wounds need little explanation, others call for the patient to share the story to get to the bottom of the problem.

Confession, like going to the ER, are alike in this. I'll admit: I'm often a jerk, sharp-tongued, judgmental, and my insecurities lead me to act in a host of destructive ways. I wake up each morning and resolve to stay close to Jesus and I've good days and bad days. Some days I hew close to the path, some nights I'm covered in spiritual burrs and I'm limping from wounds. I'm grateful the Church is seen as a field hospital: I can bring myself in for healing so I can return to the front line.

It's precisely the shame that arises within, the sense that I'm not whole, that is a mark of grace: I know I want to be restored to fighting form. And, amazingly, it is shame that often tells me both that I'm wounded and holds me back from seeking healing: "If you go to confession, what will he think of you? Better to suffer in silence than to risk being judged." That's when I pray for strength and resolve: nothing kept in the darkness can be good for the soul.

I've heard a lot of confessions these past few weeks and, the amazing thing, is that I can't ever remember afterward what someone said. I'll remember faces, but not sins. In fact, I remember the faces of those who come and change through the Sacrament, who seem physically lighter and more free, and this brings great joy to my heart. It is a joy to watch a person be freed from sin and freed for the mission of discipleship.

I mention this because I know - only too well! - that shame can be both the spur to confession and its biggest obstacle. When we allow authentic shame, a sense of sorrow arising from our recognition that we have not lived up to our baptism, to guide us toward healing, this cannot but be a sign of God's mercy and grace. Push through the embarrassment and with confidence approach the Sacrament of God's unlimited grace where we find mercy and help in time of need.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Adventure Continues

I'm the first to admit that I have a rather plum setting in which to learn the art of being a priest. Our daily Eucharist takes place at 11:00 am, which leaves me ample time to read and pray prior to Mass. The ribbons of the sacramentary no longer seem as daunting as they once did and I'm increasingly confident in my ability to recite portions of the Eucharistic prayers from memory.

Naturally, though, there's a catch.

I've never been a hyper-coordinated person. This is probably why I like the accordion: it doesn't require an enormous amount of coordinated exertion. One simply establishes oneself in a chair, or a bar stool, or stands just behind a microphone and plays tunes. Not a whole lot of movement.

Acknowledging my limitations, I set out last week to practice using the thurible or censer. Knowing that I'll eventually need to use incense, I seized an opportunity to practice a few days ago. I placed the charcoal in the bottom of the thurible, sampled a variety of incense I found in the sacristy, I practiced various maneuvers. I got the hang of the basic "swing" from side to side. I practiced incensing objects - the Book of the Gospels, other people - and found that to be easy enough. Eventually I got it so that I could "clink" the chain against the thurible, producing a rather nice sound effect to accompany the billows of smoke.

Naturally, I tried to effect a synthesis of my skills: could I incense the altar and the gifts? Three times I practiced it and did it pretty well each time. Slow procession around the alter, the thurible swinging in a stable arc. Bow before the altar and incense it. Resume the slow journey around the altar.

I couldn't leave it at three.

On my fourth attempt, I must have given too much slack to the chain and, when I went to incense the altar, you guessed it: the thurible clipped the edge of the altar on the upswing and red-hot charcoal and incense spilled out on to the altar. Fortunately for our historic church, I did not burn the building down. I did, however, do quite a number on the altar cloth.

This is not the best depiction of the damage I wrought, but it gives you a sense of what hot coals cast upon linen can do.

So, I'll probably have to serve as an indentured servant around here in order to pay off the cost of a new altar cloth.

Just Married!
Otherwise, things are going well. I continue to be really busy with weddings and a host of Masses. This upcoming weekend I have two wedding rehearsals, two weddings, four vow renewals, and three if not four weekend Masses.

One of the nice parts of being a priest serving on a prime vacation spot is that you run into loads of people you know. Indeed, we've had a pretty steady stream of visitors and there's only been a few nights that just two of us are in the house. This weekend, though, I'll be here alone...although the liturgical and social duties of the weekend will certainly keep me busy.

One final thing: one of really brilliant elements of serving on Mackinac Island is that you get to interact with a wide array of people. Of course, there is no shortage of people shambling through the streets in search of their next fix of Mackinac Island Fudge. Nor is there a shortage of people who think nothing of walking through pools of standing water...when it hasn't rained here in days and horses do relieve themselves in the streets. But in addition to meeting tourists and seeing old friends who happen to be passing through, it's amazing to serve the workers who labor behind the scenes. Drawn from Eastern Europe, Jamaica, the Philippines, and Mexico, it's a privilege to get to know many of the workers who go unseen each day. Indeed, just the other night it was a joy to celebrate mass with the Filipino community and to join them for an amazing mean after.

It's one thing to go to a church each Sunday where everybody looks the same. That happens here, too, at the regular Sunday Masses: these workers are often working during the hours worship services are available. Thus we have to schedule creatively in order to accommodate their schedules, sometimes even pushing Mass back until after nine o'clock in the evening. The good spirit of the people and their joy at having their spiritual and physical hunger sated, however, make the long days worth it (at least from my end).

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Faith Worthy of Belief

Alexander Ivanov, 1835
Around 36 years ago, in 1979, the telephone company AT&T rolled out what became one of the more successful advertising campaigns in history. To pitch its long-distance service, the slogan was "Reach Out and Touch Someone." In an era when we take unlimited minutes and free long distance for granted, it's hard to imagine how powerful it was for loved ones, separated by great distances, to hear the sound of a beloved's voice. Even if a telephone wire could not physically bring two people together, they could nonetheless "reach out" metaphorically to touch another by picking up the phone.

While the slogan may have been both innovative and profitable, the impulse behind our desire to "reach out and touch someone" is hardly new. Indeed, today the Church remembers Saint Mary Magdalene who, in today's Gospel, is the first to discover the Empty Tomb and to encounter the Risen Christ. In the midst of her grief, Jesus' address to her unleashes a whole new era of history: He is the one who has cast off the shackles of death and returns not as one seeking vengeance but as offering peace.

Quite naturally, Mary reaches out to seize the one for whom she has been grieving. This is, of course, a most wonderfully human response: it's hard not to pick up and cuddle babies, to hug loved ones after a long absence, to embrace another as a sign of giving and needing support. She seeks to take hold of, to grasp, Jesus. He who was seemingly lost, crushed by the machinery of state violence and torture, has been found.

It always strikes me that Jesus rebuffs this gesture. "Stop holding on to me," he says, "for I have not yet ascended to the Father." Thus a space emerges between them, a gap between Mary's grasp and the one she loves. She has encountered the Risen Christ and come to know him as entering into the midst of her sorrow and grief. Yet she cannot gather him to herself, for though he is now known he cannot be owned by human embrace.

I would like to suggest that today we pause to consider Mary Magdalene as one of our foremothers in Christian faith. For Mary's recognition of her Beloved in the garden is itself the gift of faith, a response to One who reveals himself to those who desire to see. As a model, Mary's faith is not something she possesses but, rather, someone by whom she is suddenly possessed: Jesus irrupts into her grief and invites her along into a new era of history.

Because faith is a gift and not a human achievement, a gap always remains between the One who is revealed and those to whom God is revealed. No word, phrase, or formula can ever sufficiently bridge this abyss between the Holy One and ourselves. To be sure, some statements of belief are better and more adequate than others, but none can ever exhaust the Mystery of the Risen Jesus. Like a person utterly shocked at a surprise birthday party, we stutter and splutter words of gratitude, but none of these words will ever express sufficiently the joy in our hearts.

A faith worthy of belief is one capable of recognizing that, for as much as we desire to reach out and touch Jesus, we cannot ever constrain or control him. We cannot pin him down or imprison him in our human systems. He is always on the way to the Father and he sends us out to gather others to follow along. Hence our fundamental need for the Church: each time we say "Yes" to grace and embark upon the journey of faith, we take our place within a great host of women and men who have struggled and strained to walk with the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

If at times our beliefs appear no more than rickety boards barely suspended over a yawning chasm, they are the boards that those before us have used to come closer to the Lord. The Church is not a surrogate for faith, a taxi-cab delivering us rapidly to our destination. Instead, the Church is both context and conveyer of faith: we come to know Jesus Christ within the Church and, in the company of other pilgrims, dare to take our place among a history of believers who have set out on the journey of faith. A faith worthy of belief is not one that has all the answers but, rather, one that leads us into the joyful exploration of a Mystery that reaches out and grasps us, ignites our hearts, and brings us as a pilgrim people who grow deeper and more faithful as the Body of Christ. 

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Today, Moses Would Have Missed It

Sad to say, I suspect that if Moses were a young man today, he'd probably miss the burning bush. Not, of course, because of any lack of effort on God's part. But with so many distractions today, it's awfully difficult to be attentive to our surroundings. People walk about the streets with eyes fixed upon hand-held screens and tune out ambient noises as they tune in personalized music. Indeed, it'd be my wager that college campuses - at least during the day - have become quieter over the years: students are so plugged into their own private worlds that there is an ever-decreasing need to engage in random interactions. Why stop to chat when you can just send a text?

I can imagine Moses walking the streets today, so enraptured by the latest Tweet or Facebook message that he'd completely miss what was going on around him. Modern technology would allow him to have his world...even if this convenience comes at the expense of increasingly divorcing him from the world he shared with others. A burning bush might occasion a raised eyebrow or quizzical look, but the latest piece of celebrity gossip would quickly draw his attention away. If he did stop to puzzle over the sight, would he really allow himself to feel astonished or would he take a selfie with it or try to find its likeness on Wikipedia?

Now, make no mistake: I don't have any nostalgia for a "simpler time" before modern technology. It'd be hypocritical for me to do so, as I'm writing in a coffee shop on Mackinac Island using WiFi and a laptop! But I cannot help but wonder if a consequence of the proliferation of technology isn't that we are buffered apart not only from one another but from our world at large.

We don't need to jettison our devices, but we do need to discern more effective strategies for their use. Do we use them to explore and discover or to insulate and evade? As Moses daydreamed and pondered the flock he tended, he took the time to gaze upon a burning bush -- certainly not an uncommon sight in the desert -- and had to marvel that it was not reduced to ash. His wonder at this observed fact impelled him to gaze further, to watch, and to experience with amazement an unexpected call that opened for him and his people an entirely new history.

Perhaps today the Angel's call would not be "take off your shoes." Instead, it would be "take off your headphones for you are surrounded by holy sound." For those looking for a challenge, perhaps we could try leaving our devices at home today or keeping silent our radios. Listen instead to the music of the world around us and allow it to speak to us, within us, and perhaps we can begin to discern a long-muted call of the Holy One who continues to appear to those attentive to it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The One Who Walks...

For a few weeks there, I had established a pretty good writing rhythm. Then, last Tuesday, I caught two flights to Northern Michigan and now I'm well established in the rectory at St. Ann's Church. Indeed, I'm so well established that I even started a Twitter account for the parish: SteAnneMackinac

It's hard to describe being dropped into the life of a parish. As it turns out, the associate pastor I was meant to assist has been indisposed for the last week, so I've done the daily masses, weekend masses, and weddings. This week I have two weddings, a visit from the bishop, two square-dances, two weddings (one the ritual, one with a mass), and we are hosting a soccer coach from Wales, and three students from U of D Jesuit doing service work on the island. I spend time with the latter group but they have their own chaperone to mind them!

Now today, July 14th, is the feast of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Her parents succumbed to smallpox when she was only four years old and the disease did not leave her unscathed: her face bore pockmarks and dimmed her eyesight so that it made it difficult to walk in the sunlight.  Indeed, her very name - Tekakwitha - is apparently Mohawk for "the one who walks groping her way."

Although it has been an exhilarating experience, I very much feels as I am one walking and groping my way along. I give one homily and must prepare for the next day's; I finished one wedding and had to begin to prepare for two more. I try to set up for Mass and people drop by and ask me to hear their confessions and it seems as though, with each boat, there arrives another person I know. Don't let, then, the idyllic setting of Mackinac Island fool you: underneath its placid exterior, a tumult of activity seethes beneath it!

Yet, for as much as I feel like I'm groping, I'm still possessed of a trust that so long as I offer my whole heart to the task ahead, God will make use of it. In today's readings for mass, we catch a glimpse of a frustrated Jesus: he's annoyed that people aren't getting the message of repentance he is preaching and enacting. They have faith enough to allow the miraculous to take place, but they don't seem willing to turn their whole selves toward Jesus. They want the Kingdom, but they want it on their terms, almost as though it came in an installment plan!

While there is probably some wisdom in easing oneself into pastoral work, I'm grateful to have been thrust into a bubbling cauldron. It's both exciting and exhausting and, even if I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing, I trust it'll be okay. I'm groping my way through but I entrust myself to God's grace and the people's mercy: they are teaching me how to be a priest!

Not for nothing, I do have a pretty beautiful place to learn the art of priesthood. This is a sunset view taken from our back porch just last night. As the weeks unfold, I'm sure I'll settle into a more reliable writing rhythm but, until that point, please know that I've landed well and am running at full-tilt. It's been a great first week and I'm excited for what remains in store!

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Prophetic Virtue

What makes a prophet distinct? For those nurtured on a steady diet of Harry Potter books, the work prophet probably evokes an image of Sybill Trelawney who prophesied the downfall of Voldemort. Those of another generation may think of Nostradamus whose gnomic writings continue to be puzzled over. Regardless, the common notion of a prophet is one who somehow foretells what is to come in the future. 

While not uninterested in the future, this is not quite the nature of the Biblical prophet. For prophets like Ezekiel, or John the Baptist, or Jesus, there are two distinctive traits:

  1. The prophet cannot not speak of God. 
  2. The prophet must (a) offer a critique of the present order and (b) reimagine it.
The vocation of the prophet is hardly, then, one involved with picking the next hot stock or winning combinations of lottery tickets. It is a demanding, austere, and difficult calling that offers no assurance of success. 

In this Sunday's readings, Ezekiel learns this first hand: he is sent to Israel without any gaurantee that his words will be heeded. As we hear, "they are a rebellious house." When Jesus came to his "native place," people were unnerved by his words and deeds. What he preached of the Kingdom disrupted the status quo and they quickly offered a reason to discount what he was saying and doing: "Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?" Their lack of faith prevented them from getting caught up God's reign...they preferred things "as they are" to allowing themselves to be roused into taking the risk of the Kingdom preached by Jesus. 

It is the vocation of the prophet to manifest single-minded devotion to a cause. The cause becomes the central focus of their life and all other causes and concerns recede into the distance. Somehow they are impelled to preach and to share, but never are they given a recipe for success. They can only preach, they can only share, and trust that those to whom they are sent will open their hearts to the message. Where hearts are opened, great transformation can take place. Where they remain closed and hardened, as Jesus learns, little growth is possible. 

If there is a virtue to be associated with the prophet, it would have to be that of resilience. I'm frequently amazed at how easily people become discouraged: any roadblock encountered becomes a warrant for abandoning one's quest. I've met more than a few students who dreamed of being doctors and, after getting a 'B' or 'C' in a class, totally abandoned their dreams because it "it's just too hard." Rather that finding in their difficulties a reason to work harder, a challenge to take up, they surrender. 

"A prophet," Jesus observes, "is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house." Those we have known for years, who have known us, know that when we preach that we are, quite often, hypocrites! Yet when we have been moved and sent by the Spirit, we cannot but offer to those we love what it is we have been given. Woe to us if we surrender too quickly because the road was difficult. 

For those summoned to be a prophet, be resilient of heart: no one said it was easy! For those summoned by the prophet's call, for those of us unnerved when a word breaks in upon us and threatens to disorient us or call us to see things anew, be warned. We may think ourselves preserving a solid notion of tradition when, in fact, we are working against the work of the Spirit. For us, too, there is no easy litmus test to detect the Spirit's presence. We have only to listen attentively and respond faithfully whenever, wherever, and however we are being called. 

Thursday, July 02, 2015

At the Cusp of the Summer Adventure

I returned to Boston on Monday with just about a week to move into a new Jesuit community. For the past three years, I have lived at the Saint Peter Faber Jesuit Community but, now that I'm ordained and will continue to study at Boston College, it seemed fitting for me to move up toward the main campus. So, for the past few days, I've been moving books and clothes to my new community where I will live with four other Jesuits in a quiet residential neighborhood.

In addition to moving, I am also excited to have the opportunity to preside at a liturgy for this year's North American Irish Dancing Championships being held in Providence, RI. Readers will know of my many years of involvement with Irish music and dancing and I'm pretty pumped to have a chance to pray with my Irish dancing family who has accompanied and supported me for so many years. 

To be sure, if there is anything I've become acutely aware of these weeks, it's how unbelievably well-supported I have been these many years. There are some who would think the vocation to the priesthood to be a heroic and solitary affair, the process of a man singularly discerning how God is calling him to serve. Such a man must, of course, find the solitude in which to consider prayerfully his call. Yet one cannot discount and must not neglect the role of the family and community in mediating how God is calling us to serve.

As I prepare to move up to Mackinac Island for my pastoral summer, I cannot but give thanks for the my family. The gifts of love and laughter flow abundantly both in my nuclear family as well in its extended iterations, and I am inexpressibly grateful to how much they have done for me, especially these last few weeks.

At Christmas or maybe at my cousin's wedding this November I'll be able to get a full-family photograph. Until that time, these will have to do!

Being Vested by Father Karl Kiser, SJ

 I include this picture because I owe a great deal to Karl Kiser as a model of the type of priest I want to be. Kind, generous, hard-working, and profoundly holy, Karl has been a great friend and mentor over the years.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Varieties of Eucharistic Reception

I've long wanted to blog about some of the odd behaviors people exhibit at Mass. If I were an artist, I'd try to render them in drawings and put captions underneath. Alas, my drawing skills seem to have been arrested sometime around pre-school, so I have to use words to make my point.

I'd like to spend a few moments describing the Varieties of Eucharistic Reception I have experienced. This is not meant as a critique of piety but as a bit of a jab at practice. As one tasked with distributing the Host and Precious Blood, it's less of a concern for me what you do and more problematic how it is done.

1. Holy Halitosis!

I make a concerted effort to elevate the host or chalice, make eye contact, and say clearly, "The Blood of Christ" or "The Body of Christ." Sometimes the vigorous assent of "Amen" carries with it a waft of garlic, or curry, or the sewer. I don't believe there is such a thing as good breath, but there certainly is a wide array of bad breaths. Even if you're going to mind the fast of one hour before receiving communion, I don't think a good dose of Scope or a quick brush of the teeth before walking out would be out of order.

2. The Fig Leaf

These are the people who approach and have their hands folded...but the hands float somewhere at the level of the belt buckle. For inordinately tall people, this doesn't pose a tremendous challenge. But for those who dwell closer to the ground, I find myself having to stoop. I find it best if people elevate their hands to about chest level and a foot or so away from their chest.

3. Easy Access

Maybe it's a trend - like skinny jeans or the slap bracelets - but I've noticed people "cupping" their hands. To be sure, it is understandable that one does not want to drop the Host to the floor and "cups" one's hands to provide a guardrail. Well and good. But it does make it a bit awkward when distributing, because it sort of forces the minister to "deposit" the host into a cupped void. If you offer me two hands relatively flat, one atop the other, I'll aim for the palm of the top hand. You can then use the bottom hand to bring the Host to your mouth for reception.

4. Bait-and-Switch

How I hold the Host varies based on whether I can anticipate you receiving on the tongue or in the hand. I'm fine with either - and it's your right to do either - but if you approach with your hands elevated and then, at the last moment, drop your hands and thrust your head forward: it throws me off! Try to signal how you're receiving as you approach. If you're hands are up, I'm assuming in the hand. If your hands are down, I'll probably assume on the tongue.

5. Give me a Target

So, a few months ago I was distributing the Host and encountered the phenomenon of people not wanting to extend their tongue out to give me a target. The problem is that the closer my hand gets to your mouth, the more likely it is your saliva will get on my fingers and transmitted to the next person in line. Indeed, I tried to offer the host to one person who opened her mouth and then put her entire mouth around my two fingers, up to the cuticle. Like, both nails were for a moment in her mouth. I felt like I was a little kid at the zoo when the goat eats out of your hand and seems to engulf your fingers with its mouth. That really threw me for a loop and I had to try to dry off my fingers as discretely as possible.

6. The Cobra

If you're going to genuflect in order to receive - and this is fine - it is vitally important that you lean forward a bit. I saw some weeks ago a guy drop to two knees and as the priest attempted to offer him the host, he began to lean backwards. A lot. Really far back. I marveled at this because he appeared as a cobra preparing to strike.

7. Amen

I'm all for innovation with flavors of ice cream and cocktails. But I think it best to leave the response to "The Body/Blood of Christ" as "Amen." Of late I've gotten "I am," "We are," "Truly it is," and most fascinating, "Thanks." One Jesuit friend reported of the response, "No problem." I think Amen is a great way to go: short, simple, and not open to interpretation.

8. Receiving the Cup

Just as a public service announcement: there is a moment in the liturgy when the priest breaks off a piece of the consecrated Host and adds it to the Precious Blood. So if you see a small piece of something floating in the cup, odds are that it is not backwash. I make it my custom, as best as possible, to drink the particulate Host so that it doesn't freak people out. If you're at the beginning of the communion line, consider it a public service to do so.


Anyway, those are some musings on the topic. It's meant to be funny and taken as a moment to help people think of how they themselves receive (but, Lord knows, the Catholic community is not always known for its sense of humor). 

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Best Intentions...

At least it has been my experience that, when I set out to tackle a public reading project, it withers quite quickly. Such it is with a reading of Laudato Si - I intended to use each of the mornings last week to read, consider, and publicly reflect upon the encyclical. As it turns out, I was given the opportunity to cover the morning masses at my home parish of St. Brendan. It's a great testament to the pastor, Father Tom Woost, that those morning masses are super well attended. On Friday I think there were six or seven teenage girls who came to mass following a sleepover.

On Saturday I was privileged to celebrate the Eucharist with the parish community. Four priests were in attendance - Fathers Woost, Cornelius Murray, Mahoney, and Jayme Stayer, SJ. Each one of these men has exercised a formative influence on my vocation and I'm extraordinarily grateful to have had the chance to pray with them. Indeed, I'm especially grateful that they "fed me lines" when I forgot or blanked on what I was supposed to say!

The evening was made only the richer by the great number of family and friends who were able to attend. Former parents and students from Detroit, Tom Hastings my music teacher, feis musician Tony Nother, and what seemed like most of Cleveland's West Side Irish managed to make it. It's humbling to look out at the gathered assembly and see so many familiar and loving faces. If a vow of poverty means that I cannot material things as the source of my wealth, this only brings out how rich I am with friends and family. A very special group of life-long friends gave me the beautiful gift of a traveling Mass Kit, knowing as they do how much I travel.

I am especially grateful this morning to our family friend Marianne Mangan for coming to take pictures at our Mass of Thanksgiving. Marianne is a truly gifted photographer and her photos of the event are spectacular.

Of the evening, my favorite picture is this one snapped as I stood at the back of the church following the recessional hymn. As it turns out, it was more than a flippant gesture: over and again, I heard from friends that my sense of joy was palpable. Maybe it's still the grace of first fervor, but I must say that it's hard to understand how someone could not be joyful. My job is to share Good News, so how can that not give rise to intense hope and joy?

I am not unaware that we live in politically and socially challenging times. Yet I simply cannot accept as definitive the laments of the prophets of doom who think the United States, or the Catholic Church, is finished. If the curtain has fallen on the days when "Father Knows Best" or when institutional religion exercised a decisive influence on morality, this does not mean the endeavor has failed. We need to earn people's confidence, to fight for our credibility, not by lamenting a lost past but by looking toward a possible future.

Hence it is my belief that there is no better time to be a priest today. I take it as an exciting challenge to engage an increasingly skeptical world and to offer those I meet the opportunity to encounter the One who brings joy to my life and who stands at the heart of my Church. I've no illusion that this is easy or without hardship, but for me I cannot imagine desiring to do anything else. My experience of Jesus Christ has been that he is the light capable of piercing the darkness and that there are many who need desperately to meet him. If I can serve to facilitate this connection, to help people find and make their own the joy of the Gospel, then I think we will slowly make inroads into a skeptical world. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Reading Laudato Si

Having a few days break before returning to Boston, I have the luxury of giving a slow-read to the Holy Father's encyclical Laudato Si. Without trying to give a summary of the text, I thought it might be nice to offer a few reflections on the document. 

In the introduction to the document, we find a tantalizingly suggestive phrase: integral ecology. Pope Francis does not immediately define this term, but he tethers it to the vision Saint Francis had for the environment. Consistent with a tradition reaching back to the psalms, the Holy Father desires his readers to take a stance that allows creation itself to praise God's glory. Far from a bloodless portrayal of the environment as an assemblage of biological organisms, Pope Francis understands creation as the primordial locus of wonder and awe:
If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled. (11)
Our attitude to the world must not be one of cool indifference but, rather, one of astonishment and wonder. That it is at all is a marvel sufficient to rock us back on our heels and stir up within a sense of enormity and vastness of creation. 

Chapter One, "What is Happening to Our Common Home," addresses five areas of particular environmental concern: pollution, water, biodiversity, quality of human life, and global inequality. Pope Francis decries what I would call naive "capitalist cataracts" which blind one to detecting the many and subtle ways we are all connected. So blinded, one comes to see "the environment" as merely a means to a singular end: profit. If profit is the goal, then any means can be justified to turn a profit, even if those means include inflicting terrible damage to the world we share with one another. This blindness lacks, too, the depth-perception to note that what we do to the environment ultimately affects us: the toxins we spew into the air or discharge into the sea eventually make it back to us in the forms of our drinking water and the food on our plates. It's sort of like passing gas in a crowded elevator: you may hope to God it doesn't stink but odds are it does and it will, given sufficient time, affect everyone on board. 

Pope Francis concludes the first chapter with the following prescient observation:
On many concrete questions, the Church has no reason to offer a definitive opinion; she knows that honest debate must be encouraged among experts, while respecting divergent views. But we need only take a frank look at the facts to see that our common home is falling into serious disrepair. Hope would have us recognize that there is always a way out, that we can always redirect our steps, that we can always do something to solve our problems. Still, we can see signs that things are now reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation; these are evident in large-scale natural disasters as well as social and even financial crises, for the world’s problems cannot be analyzed or explained in isolation. There are regions now at high risk and, aside from all doomsday predictions, the present world system is certainly unsustainable from a number of points of view, for we have stopped thinking about the goals of human activity. “If we scan the regions of our planet, we immediately see that humanity has disappointed God’s expectations”. (61)
The role of the Church is not to claim that this scientific theory is correct, or that scientific study irredeemably flawed. The Church's role, instead, is to help give a holistic assessment - an integral assessment - of the current state of affairs. One may debate the nature and scope of human impact upon the earth, but it cannot be denied that we are affecting it...and not for the good of the planet or for the whole of its population.

This first chapter, then, sets the stage for what is to follow. I am keenly interested in how the notion of "integral ecology" will be developed. But as I finish reading this opening of the text, I cannot but marvel at the ongoing sense of hope: it is not too late for us to be aroused to the plight of our common home and respond in a way in line with God's expectations.

Friday, June 19, 2015

First Week

I was overjoyed to celebrate the Eucharist with the daily mass-goers at my home parish of St. Brendan in North Olmsted, Ohio. I have very fond memories of serving in the small chapel before school and it was a thrill to be there today. The congregation was very gracious and patient as I continue to figure out how to "work" the book and its many...many...many...ribbons.

In a few minutes, I'll drive down to Kentucky to play the accordion for two Irish dancing competitions. This may strike some as odd but, to be honest, I cannot think of a better way of describing what my sense of priesthood is: my duty is to help others do what they love. So I play the music for people to dance, just as I pray and celebrate the sacraments in order that women and men can be good disciples.

Though if I may, a moment of venting.

So, I'm going to celebrate Mass at the feis (Irish dancing competition) this weekend. I have hosts, chalice, paten, linens, alb, a beautiful chasuble (Thanks to Laureen O'Neill-James) and stole (Thanks to Mary Bryan and Tommy Blake). I have a bottle of approved wine, two cruets, and a nice candle stand.

Finding a nice candle, however, was damned near impossible. For sure, I wasn't going to buy a Yankee Candle Company candle: they are really expensive and while they make the bathroom smell great, they're hardly what I would want on the altar. I went to a bunch of different stores trying to find a suitable candle, but it was really difficult.

I think I finally settled on a candle that has a slight sandalwood odor. Pleasant and not overpowering. Jesus wore sandals and the cross was made of wood, and he was a carpenter, so I figure this is the best. It beats "Orange Blossom Almond Hurricane" or "Lemon Sage Pine Delight" in terms of simplicity.

It's been a big week and I still marvel at the sense of peace and joy I feel. Please keep me in your prayers. And, if ever you are so moved, feel free to contact me to do memorial masses: I plan on celebrating the Eucharist daily and would be honored to remember your loved ones, or your intentions, at Mass.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

10 Things to Know About Laudato Si

This is a very well-done piece produced by America Magazine.

It certainly provides a remarkable contrast to the commentary offered by Greg Gutfeld.

As I mentioned yesterday, the near-allergic reaction some are having to this encyclical betrays a fundamental inability of Americans to think in categories not associated with politics. Our shared home - our oikos - and its stewardship have been politicized into "Left" versus "Right." Pope Francis isn't offering a political agenda but, rather, a theological reflection on the environment. For those familiar with Ignatian spirituality's commitment to "find God in all things," this encyclical attempts to peer beneath the economic, political, and scientific data to probe the theological meaning of the environment and our impact upon it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Better as People, but not Political??

I'm rather dismayed today in reading a comment made by Jeb Bush. As reported by the New York Times:
“I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope,” Mr. Bush said. “And I’d like to see what he says as it relates to climate change and how that connects to these broader, deeper issues before I pass judgment. But I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”
On the face of it, this seems to resonate with the American understanding of the separation between Church and State. The Church cannot, within this system, set the policy by which the State operates.

Yet if you scratch the surface, a question comes to the fore. If religion is meant to make us "better people," and if we live together in society, then does it not stand to reason that religion does indeed come to bear upon the political realm? The scriptural admonition to tend to the "widow, orphan, and stranger" demands translation into action. Human actions are inherently political because they take place within society and contribute to shaping the way we live our lives together as a people.

It must be born in mind that the Pope - who, incidentally, has a more substantive scientific background than many who criticize him - did not compose his encyclical letter on the environment in a vacuum. He did not, that is, sequester himself in a theological library to consult Aquinas on the environment. Using the vast array of resources at his disposal, I have no doubt he has drawn on the best scientific research available to help him think through the theological implications of our human affect on the environment.

Gladly do I agree with Michael McKenna who opines, "This guy is not in sync with the American catholic Church. Guys like Jeb and Rubio are more in line with the American Catholic Church than the pope." The American Catholic Church too easily worships at the altar of fad and outrage, focusing more on its political allegiances than how it is being called to serve God's Kingdom. It is to the Holy Father's credit that he is out of step, and my most fervent prayer that the rhythm to which he marches slowly enter into and animate that of the American Church. The American Church is ~6% of the world's Catholic population and to think that our extraordinarily limited perspective should set policy for the rest of the world is the height of hubris.

If one's religious faith serves only to cocoon a person or wrap one in a feeling of warm sentiment and comfort it is, sadly, probably false. A faith that is concerned solely with self-improvement is not Christian faith: Jesus did not go to the Cross because he advocated being better people. He died because he saw that our progress as a people demanded engagement with, and a transformation of, the culture in which we live. The Holy Father is rightly and presciently drawing needed attention to the environment and to the pressing issues raised by our common home. Rather than worrying about him politicizing faith, we should be trying to find out how faith can offer us insights into our political sphere and contribute to making our world more just, not only for special interest groups, but for all who call this planet their home. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame