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Advent

If Advent is about anything it is about one word:  Hope.  Bishop Sheen reminds us that “because God has entered our physical world in the person of Jesus, nothing in our human experience is beyond hope.”  That means everything is redeemable.  Every soul can be saved. Everyone is salvageable.  Nothing is beyond the power of hope.  No person is beyond the power of hope.

When you think about it, hope is that cardinal virtue which separates us from the animal kingdom and from all else God has created.  To think about the future, plan for the future, anticipate something more than now and today.  Why do so many people buy lottery tickets?  Because they hope for something more.  So fundamental is hope that humans can literally not live without hope.  Take away hope and we give up—we die.  Recently I visited the concentration camp at Dachau.  It was the Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl who wrote in “Man’s Search for Meaning” about those who lost hope in the Nazi concentration camps.  They would roll up in a corner and die.   No physical ailments.  They just lost all hope; and without hope—we die.  For our Jewish ancestors, Hanukkah is the commemoration of those Jews who did not give up hope when their Temple was desecrated by invaders who sought to obliterate God and their faith.  The candles of the menorah are the sign to us of those who did not give up hope.  The candles of the Advent Wreath are the sign that we continue in hope.

We hope for ambition, power, family, cures, vacation, health, success, or to see again a deceased parent or lost child.  We hope.  Without hope, death wins, despair wins and the darkness swallows the light.  Hope is exclusively human.  And hope is limitless. 

Innumerable times I have been with people as they stand at the threshold of death.  Often they are afraid or agitated.  And then I ask the question:  “Whom do you wish to see first?”  They blink and then they look at me and tell me that one person whom they hope to see.  “My mother.”  “My son.”  “My wife.” And then a physical transformation of great peace always overcomes them.  I’ve seen it countless times.  It is called hope. 

It is called Advent. 

Time’s Up!

Recently I was making my way through the back streets of Austria when I should bump into a German Dominican priest who was turning the corner.  I quickly introduced myself and Father Justin invited me to visit his church which was about a block away.  I was eager to accept.  As we walked to the church through the beautiful streets of the ancient imperial city, and just around the block from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, I told him that I had a parish that had been served by Dominican Sisters for a century.  I told him that I had just come from the city of Regensburg, Germany from whence had come those sisters so many years ago.  Located about a mile from our parish is Dominican Village which was also founded by those same Dominican nuns.  At the heart of their Amityville complex is an exact replica of the Dominican church in Regensburg.  Father Justin exclaimed “Oh, I have heard of this place Amityville where all those Dominicans have served the parish for a century.”

As we approached his Austrian church we entered the darkness and I was immediately struck by the beauty of the baroque style sanctuary. Father Justin was very kind to show me every nook and cranny of the ancient place and we chatted for a long time about things priests like to talk about.  We talked of the pope, theology, vocations and clerical gossip.

As I was about to leave I thanked Father Justin for taking the time to show me around the beautiful church.  I told him the old church was magnificent, but I could never understand something odd that stuck out in the center of his church.  I had visited many churches around the world and in a few of these churches there was an old large clock located in the center of the sanctuary.  I told Father Justin that I remember in my seminary we were told there ought not be a clock in the sanctuary as it would distract the congregation.  The sanctuary was supposed to be a “place outside of time.”  The wise young priest taught me something in that instant.  He said “Oh, the clock doesn’t work; it’s not supposed to.  It is there to remind us that one day we ourselves will ‘run out of time’ and our lives will suddenly and unexpectedly end.”   I got a chill.  How brilliant.

What a shock that was to me.  I had seen it many times, but failed to fully comprehend the profound and ancient meaning.  The broken clock faces us to remind us one day our time will be up!  We enter into these days of Advent to prepare for the coming of the Lord at Christmas.  May we be waiting…ready…alert…for His return.

Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

This weekend is the last Sunday of the Church’s calendar.  Next week we begin Advent and a new liturgical year.  This Sunday is dedicated to the Solemnity of Christ the King, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 as a counter-weight to the rise of totalitarian regimes of the early 20th century which claimed absolute power over individuals and scoffed at God guiding their lives. In Christ the King we see the paradox of a God….who serves His creation.  Our God is unique in that, while all other Gods came to be served, Jesus came to serve.  Unprecedented!  Mindboggling!  And Christ has asked the same of us toward one another in the Corporal Works of Mercy of today’s Gospel of Final Judgment:  “When I was hungry, you fed me; when I was alone, you visited me…” 

But God is a King who invites, and not necessarily commands.  The only time He ever commanded us to do something was when He commanded us to “love one another.” I remember the story of the creation of the mighty statue of Christ the King at the Cathedral of Copenhagen.  Christ’s hands were raised in foreboding power.  His face upstretched in regal splendor.  The statue had been stored for a time before placement and, when retrieved, they found the dampness had altered the statue.  The upraised and fiercely commanding hands now drooped low and turned out in supplication. The stern face, once raised high, now was lowered humbly onto His chest.   Christ had transformed from a threatening King into the image of compassion, now inviting us to Him.  The sculptor, at first surely disappointed, looked at his words originally carved at the base:  “Follow My Commands.”  He got out his chisel and changed the words to “Come Unto Me.” 

Christ the King invites us, beckons us, to Him.  The only thing He ever commanded of us was to “love one another.” 

The Gift

There is an old classic story about the great painter Pablo Picasso.  I don’t know if it is apocryphal or if it really happened, but who cares, it’s a great story.  He was immensely wealthy when he died; they say he was worth nearly a half-billion dollars.  And I know exactly how he became so enormously wealthy.  The story goes that he would pay for everything by check, most notably in his early days of fame he paid his rent by check.  Whatever the purchase, just before handing over the check he would turn it over and doodle a little picture on the back of the check:  an instant, unique and priceless Picasso! This of course meant that no one would ever cash his checks.  The value of possessing a unique Picasso was worth more than whatever amount was written on the face of the check.  Everyone simply kept the check with his own personal masterpiece rather than hand it over to the bank.  Genius!

As happens many times throughout the day, a nice lady came in to the office a few months ago to have some Masses said for her family.  I passed by and said hello.  She asked if she might take a moment of my time.  We went in to my office and talked about things, whereupon she opened her checkbook and wrote a great check to donate to our parish.  I was astonished and very moved by her humble and unassuming generosity to support the good works of St. Martin’s parish. 

After several weeks she called me to ask if I’d deposited the check.  I said not yet, because I enjoyed staring at it on my desk.  I simply couldn’t part with the sight of such a beautiful gift to the parish.  I figured now I best take the check out of the frame and put it into the bank.  Reluctantly I took the check out of its frame and drove to the bank.  As I entered the bank to deposit the little Picasso, a big man yelled out from his tow-truck: “Hey Father, it’s good to see a priest.”  I went over to the big rig and made a new friend named Hugh.  Hugh reposes cars for a living; I wouldn’t want to mess with him.  If you Google “tow-truck-repossession” Hugh’s face will come up; right out of central casting.   He told me he was so happy to see a priest walking around that he couldn’t help himself, he had to shout it out.  He said “You don’t see a lot of priests anymore.”  This immediately put me into the category of extinction:  stagecoaches, dinosaurs, bellbottoms and payphones.  We talked for a while and he promised he would come visit and bring lunch.   He told me “seeing a priest today was the best part of his day.”  He said he loved priests, you just don’t see them anymore. 

All of this goes to teach me how important it is to be dressed like a priest in the world today.  We never know the silent effect it has on a passerby.  I remember being on a bus in Rome when a vecchio uomo kept yelling at me.  He was one of those rare ones who did not like seeing a priest, but for the most part people smile or want to talk, or often enough want to go to confession.  I hear the whispers when walking down the aisle of the plane “Oh, thank God there’s a priest on the plane.”  While I would never say it publicly, I believe it did not serve well religious communities to jettison their religious habits in favor of street clothing.   But that conversation is for another day.

The Franciscan monks St. Francis and St. Giles were traveling through a very large city to preach the gospel.  It was an enormous city that took 2 days to pass through.  After two days as they left the city Saint Giles asked Saint Francis when they would preach the gospel.  Saint Francis responded that they already had.  The simple presence of the monk, the nun, the priest gives hope to those whom they silently pass.  It happens without our ever knowing it. 

Well anyway, I handed over the check to the bank, but I made a new friend thanks to my priest outfit and he’ll be coming over for lunch next week.  That is worth more than a Picasso.

Don’t Turn Your Back

It was a beautiful day.  Many of our parishioners spent last Saturday together at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception in Huntington.  We had spiritual talks in the beginning of the day, Mass, a barbecue, family games and tours inside and outside the great complex.  The building is about a century old, immense, and sits on about 200 acres in some of the most beautiful land on Long Island.  Located just north of Huntington, the seminary of the Immaculate Conception has been the place where countless priests have been trained for six years of studies to serve the people of Long Island.  In the old days, men attended college and then spent the next six years secluded away in the fortress-like solitude of the seminary; they rarely left the grounds.  It is a place of great history, prayer and formation.  Those rigorous years of formation were not easy years because we were challenged in every way:  constantly tested in our academic studies and the discernment necessary to make such a permanent commitment to God to serve Him forever as His priest.

Today the seminarians have been moved to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, New York, under the supervision of the Archdiocese of New York.  There they are taught by a group of priests in order to best utilize the smaller number of priests available, as well as the diminishing number of seminarians.   As a result, the seminary in Huntington no longer serves as the place where priests are formed and educated, but as a place for ongoing spiritual learning for clergy and laity here on Long Island under the title of the Sacred Heart Institute. 

It felt somehow odd to see so many different people utilizing the great building.  In my years there it was rare to see anyone other than another seminarian or priest, yet here were so many people busily about in various classrooms.  It was like returning to your home and finding all sorts of strangers in every room.  I wasn’t sure what I thought, until…

During one of the many tours I was providing through the massive edifice I noticed a group visiting the small Blessed Sacrament chapel in the crypt area.  It is a tiny chapel which contains the Blessed Sacrament; I’d been in it many times before, but for the first time I noticed something I’d never seen before.  As the small group of devout visitors left the chapel, they individually genuflected and backed out of the chapel.  I realized exactly what they were doing:  no one leaves the presence of the king and turns his back; one backs out of the room.  It is considered disrespectful to turn one’s back on the king.  It was an ancient European custom which the group had applied to the Lord, and I was stunned to see such devotion.  And here’s the interesting thing:  they have no idea what a profound impact they made upon this priest by their simple act of devotion, so much so, that the little group I was leading immediately did the same as they left the chapel.  It was profoundly, silently, beautiful.

As we left the subterranean chapel we went past the main chapel upstairs where the Blessed Sacrament is also reserved, and it was here that I was struck a second time.  A group of college students on retreat were coming and going up and down the main staircase.  Every time one past the outside of the chapel he or she would stop and profoundly genuflect very slowly in recognition that the Lord was present in the chapel.  They too did not know what an instantaneous impression they had made upon me in that simple action. 

I left confidently knowing the seminary was continuing its good work into the 21st century of forming the evangelization of faithful for “Dramatic Missionary Growth”.

The “Grunt Padre”

Next time you drive over the Verrazano Bridge heading out of Brooklyn and into Staten Island, get into the right lane and follow the big sign for “Father Capodanno Boulevard” where you will find his grave.  Father Vincent Capodanno was a Maryknoll priest and a lieutenant in the United States Marines Corp.  Father Capodanno served in Vietnam and gave his life as a martyr at 38 years of age at 4:30 AM on September 4, 1967.  I was thinking of him last week which marked 52 years ago when he threw his body over another Marine in South Vietnam and was riddled with 27 fatal bullets in his back.  I know his family.  He is an American hero.  He is soon to become the first member of the US military to become a saint.

                He came from Staten Island and made his way eventually to the battle fields of Vietnam by way of the priesthood.  His was the pilgrimage of a saint.  To the end of his life he faithfully held to the truth of Christ that “greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends.”  Lieutenant Capodanno did this as he died a martyr for a soldier of D company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines in Que Son Valley, South Vietnam.

You will note that a priest always blesses with his right hand, but in those final minutes, Father Capodanno’s right hand had been blown apart, and so he had to bless and absolve the dying marine with his left hand.  An eyewitness tells “we counted 27 gunshot wounds…saw the shrapnel embedded in his shoulder…and some fingers missing from his hand.  The shot that killed Father entered his head from the back of his neck.  Most of the gunshot wounds were in his back.  Usually we looked down upon anyone with a wound in his back because it was a sign he was running away…but Father Capodanno was running deliberately to shield another Marine with his own body.”

                One of the young Marines who were there that day said:  “Of all the deaths I saw in Vietnam, the greatest was his.  I don’t know if he knew the tremendous impact he had on me.  I returned to my faith because of him.  In my life he is a saint.” 

                One man who knew Father Capodanno recalled a young corpsman brought to the hospital with severe burns.  The corpsman’s body was burned to the nerves.  He knew he was about to die, and so he asked to see a Catholic priest and go to Confession before his death.  Father Capodanno heard the young man’s Confession and asked him if there was anything he wanted.  “One thing” he responded.  “A beer.”  Father Capodanno immediately went to the officer’s club and got a beer for him, then stayed with him and held him until he died.  For the Catholic, the presence of the priest at death is a consolation beyond price. 

                Sergeant Lawrence Peters, Corporal Ray Harton, Lance Corporal John Scafidid. They all attest to the truth that, in the jungles of Vietnam, Father Capodanno wanted “to help us pass from this life to the next, to give us comfort and consolation in a place where death was everywhere.” 

                After Father Capodanno’s death, the new priest chaplain went to the mortuary.  He had to identify and bless the body of his brother Marine and priest.  He recollects that the mortuary was a long Quonset hut containing “uncountable bloated and grotesque bodies.”  The Army Master Sergeant, a devout Catholic, took the new priest to bless Father Capodanno’s body.  It was not disfigured like all the other bodies.  It was miraculously preserved. At his funeral a young Marine asked the new priest “If his life meant so much to him, why did Father Capodanno allow his own life to be taken?”  The priest replied “it was precisely because Father Capdanno loved the lives of others more than his own that he so freely gave his own life.” 

                Father Capodanno eventually was awarded the Medal of Honor, the Bronze Star and 3 Purple Hearts.  He has had streets, hospitals, chapels and Navy ships named after him throughout the world.  But the most important thing to him was that he was a priest and chaplain. The word “chaplain” derives from the Latin word for “cloak.”  It was the cloak of the early Christian Saint Martin of Tours which became the symbol of brotherly love manifested by the many men who would serve selflessly as chaplains throughout the world.  Like Father Capodanno, Saint Martin of Tours began his life as a soldier, but ended his life as a soldier for Christ.