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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Give Me My Name

“Our celebrant today is . . . I don’t remember his name, so he’ll have to introduce himself . . .”

So I was introduced at the beginning of one of my masses this summer. One could take offense. I didn’t. But I did wonder if it was symptomatic of something I’ve been noticing all summer, with varying degrees of comfort. I have a new name. That name is “Father.” Even people who do remember my name are prone to calling me not Father Mark or Father Mossa, but simply “Father.” And if that were not enough, some people insist on punctuating nearly every sentence with it in the course of conversation. Now don’t get me wrong; I know they are just being respectful. But I don’t always feel worthy of such respect, especially from those who have been living a good and devout Christian life a lot longer than I have been.

In many religious communities people used to—and some still do—begin their life with a new name. My friend Frances, who recently joined the Trappistines, is now “Sofia.” One of my favorite high school teachers, Brother Alois, started his life as “Donald.” So, getting a new name is not something foreign to religious commitment. And, indeed, I would often be mistakenly called “Father” during my Jesuit formation, but most of the time only when I was wearing clerics. One of the most disarming things that happened right after ordination was having people call me Father when I wasn’t wearing clerics! They’d been, most of them, witness to the event, so they knew who I was. The secret was out.

This summer only heightened my awareness of this new name, because I found myself being introduced to most of the people I would come to know in Germany, already a priest. Indeed, in the case of most of the parishioners where I was working, their first encounter with me was when I was presiding at mass. I suspect most of them didn’t even find it necessary to learn my name; it was easy enough simply to call me “Father.”

My concern in all this is not so much being called “Father,” however. I suppose I’m more concerned with the “Mark” getting lost. Not that it would be so terrible, but I don’t want to just blend into some general category they have in their brain. I want them to know the unique me. Not just because I like to be appreciated, but also so that the unique gifts God has given may be best put to use. Does being just “Father” somehow obscure that? I’m not sure. I may be thinking too much into it. Nonetheless, it’s an identity that I’m still not quite used to. Someone says “Father,” and it doesn’t immediately sink in that they are talking to me.

Yet, in spite of all this, I also find myself resisting the temptation to say, “just call me Mark.” This is because I think that I also have an obligation myself to appreciate and respect my new identity. As much as I know myself to be just like everybody else, there is at least one way now that I am not like everybody else, and cannot be. I’m an ordained priest not because I crave respect and adulation or whatever, but because God has called me to be this. So as uncomfortable as I may be being called Father, I am equally if not more uncomfortable with inclinations I might have to make little of it. It smacks of artificial humility rather than the real humility which is required—accepting the vocation God has called me to, and its consequences. But there is also more to me than just this particular vocation. So maybe in addition to “Father,” maybe there could be also be a “Father Mark” once in a while. Just so I don’t get lost.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

New Home

The last week has been quite busy, thus my absence. I returned to the States in time for the young adult retreat in Atlanta. It was a great weekend. In addition to a few talks, I heard confessions, and presided at Sunday’s mass. It was a real privilege to be able to do so much. I’ve been doing retreats since I was a teenager, but this was different because now I had a different role. Indeed, much of it was new. It was the team’s first time doing this retreat, and our first time working together. Because I was in Germany, I did not have the opportunity to really get to know them before the weekend, so it took some getting used to each other. Little things needed to be negotiated, like assuring them that it was not necessary to defer to me when it came time to pray. And, of course, I still have to get used to people referring to me as “Father” so often, which I will say a bit more about in a future post.

Then, it was off to Florida for a few days to visit my parents, and contend with Tropical Storm Fay, which kept us at home for most of my birthday. We had to postpone our day trip to Sarasota until Thursday. By then the storm had moved further along enough that we had a nice, pretty day there, with a few sprinkles, but no rain.

Now I’m two days back home in my community here in Boston. Things are familiar, but again very new. I return to a new house, and return as a priest. There are new faces, old faces have gone, and I’m not quite sure exactly where I fit in with all this. But I’m looking forward to seeing how my new life back at home comes together . . .

Friday, August 15, 2008

Newly Busted

My friends over at Busted Halo are basking in the glow of their new web design. Check it out! There you can also find the homilies of Paulist Father Dave Dwyer who, along with Mike Hayes, hosts the Busted Halo podcast.

Anniversaries & New Beginnings

These are days replete with significance for me and many others. Yesterday, August 14, marked 11 years as a Jesuit for me (I entered August 14, 1997), and two months as a priest. Today, August 15, is the 9 year anniversary of the day I took my first vows in 1999.

Today, also, I'm remembering in a special way the group of novices from my province who this morning pronounced their first vows: Paul Frederick, Marcus Fryer, John Hough, Stephen Pitts, and Sylvester Tan. They will leave the novitiate to begin their Philosophy studies in New York, Chicago and St. Louis. And, God willing, they will also find themselves in 8-9 years ordained priests. Please pray for them.

I'm unable to be with them today because I'm in Atlanta preparing for the retreat I'm working on, which begins tomorrow. We have about 35 young adults coming to participate in the retreat, which is exciting! Please pray for all of us as well!

On Tuesday, August 19, the Company magazine bio of me will cease to be incorrect, as I will be celebrating my birthday.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Last Homily in Frankfurt

I was pleased when I saw the readings this week. How appropriate that I should finish my time here with my "first parish" with the Gospel story depicted on my ordination card! Indeed, Peter's walk on the water is one of my favorite Gospel episodes, one that has brought me much consolation in my years as a Jesuit. And I enjoyed the chance to reflect on it in the context of Elijah's encounter with God in that "tiny whispering sound" in the first reading. So, here it goes:

One of the most frequent questions I hear from people on retreat is: How do I know that it is God speaking to me in my silent prayer, and it’s not just my mind telling me what I want to hear? It’s a great question, and I can relate to it because I often ask myself the same thing. And it’s not an easy one to answer. Save for God appearing and speaking to you directly—and even then you’d probably think yourself crazy—it’s hard to be sure. How did Elijah know, in the first reading today, that God wasn’t in the earthquake, the wind or the fire, but instead in that small whispering voice? Save for the fact that he was a prophet, and thus should know such things, who knows?! At this moment Elijah was on the run from people who wanted to take his life. It’s a wonder he didn’t grasp on to the idea that God would manifest himself as something thundering and violent. Yet, perhaps he simply recognized that at such a time it was not more violence that was needed, but rather a whispering calm. In any case, I think we’re meant to take note of what happens next. When Elijah recognizes God he moves to the front of the cave. He comes out of hiding and waits for God to tell him what’s next.

This is actually an apt metaphor for our prayer experience. And this is what I tell those who ask me about it. Like Elijah, we look for God. And, like Elijah, we trust that God’s presence will be made manifest in our lives. In answer to that recognition, we too have come out of hiding. We open ourselves to God. So, why wouldn’t God speak to us? Why wouldn’t God take advantage of that openness in prayer and reveal to us what’s next. And God inevitably does. Sometimes God just confirms what we were thinking already, for certainly God was already working. But sometimes God does something that comes as a total surprise.

When God does speak to us in prayer, and I think he does far more often than we recognize, this is usually an invitation to obedience. If you’re looking to be a rebel, here’s your chance, because this is one of the most countercultural things about our faith. Not only that we would talk to God, and claim that he speaks with us, but that we would let God tell us what to do! In a world that worships independence and self-determination, people will think we’re crazy not so much because we claim to speak with God, but that we would do something contrary to our own will in order to serve God’s will! And their objections will only become louder and more thunderous if, as sometimes happens, things then don’t go so well.

Six years ago I found myself in just this kind of situation. I’d finished the first part of my seminary studies, and was looking forward to a few years of active ministry before returning to studies. There was a plan in place for me to go and teach English at one of our high schools. I was really excited, and looking forward to it. However, about six months before I was to start, I was asked to consider another position. Not teaching, but directing the campus ministry and community service programs. I was not happy. I’d already told my formation director that an administrative type job would not suit me well, but he insisted I consider it. I did, then returned to him and repeated my objections, adding that I would do whatever was asked of me and try my best. I was asked to do it, and tried my best to do it well, but I couldn’t hide the fact that I was just barely keeping my head above water and that the work was making me miserable. I thought: If I weren’t a Jesuit, I would just quit. Indeed, I’m not sure I would have made it if it hadn’t been for the presence of a couple of Jesuit friends, and my work outside the school directing two women through a retreat in daily life, where we encountered just the kind of questions about prayer I was speaking of.

After a year of basically overworking myself, the principal expressed no appreciation for my work, but instead not so nicely invited me to leave. And my religious superiors were starting to wonder about my future as a Jesuit. But by then I had already realized for myself that something new was happening. I realized that despite my desire to just quit the job, my confidence in my vocation as a Jesuit and a priest had not wavered, even if now it was being called into question. Also, what had been happening at that same time was that I had already received an unexpected invitation—from someone who had no idea what was going on with me at the high school—to come and teach at Loyola University in New Orleans. I spent a very happy and successful two years there during which even I was amazed at the things I was able to accomplish, and the doubts of my superiors were soon put to rest, more or less.

I realized then why, for reasons I couldn’t have anticipated, a few years before I had found myself so drawn to the story in today’s Gospel reading. As with Elijah, this is a story of recognition. Peter and the Apostles think they’re seeing a ghost as Jesus walks toward them on the water. Yet, in response to Jesus’ voice, Peter does what many of us would like to do when we are trying to sort out whether or not God is really speaking to us: He kind of dares Jesus to prove himself, saying, “If it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” And Jesus says, “OK. Come on.” Like Elijah stepping out of the cave, Peter offers to Jesus his obedience, by stepping out of the boat and, amazingly, finds himself walking on the water. Now a lot of people want to see this as a story of failure. But I want to say, wait a minute! Did you notice that Peter walked on the water? Jesus told him to, and he walked on the water! Yeah, then he started to notice the high winds, and began to sink, just like the winds of independence, self-reliance and doubt can get in the way of our attempts to answer God’s call to walk on the water as well. But, at least he stepped out of the boat! And he and Elijah both highlight for us today, what I also learned during that miserable year: When we choose to trust that we are hearing God in our prayer, when we choose despite our doubts and even perhaps contrary to our own will to be obedient to God, we’ll probably find what Peter did. We’ll sometimes find ourselves doing more than we ever imagined we could, and we’ll sometimes find ourselves miserable and struggling for air. Yet, either way, like Peter, we’ll always have the confidence that we’ll be heard when we cry out, “Lord, save me.” And we’ll also have the confidence that God will respond.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Atlanta Bound

A week from now I'll be back in the states to help out with a young adult retreat at our retreat house in Atlanta. I'm really looking forward to it, though I expect I'll be a little jetlagged. I'm also looking forward to having the opportunity of visiting with the Jesuits there. The retreat house, and the Jesuits, were featured in a recent article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. If you're a young adult in the Atlanta area, think about joining us. You can find information about the retreat here. Here's a little snapshot of Jesuit life from the above mentioned article (the photo above includes some of the Jesuits in question):

When the priests aren't conducting retreats, they are often preparing sermons to deliver in local parishes and counseling spiritual seekers, said the Rev. Albert Louapre, known as "Father Al." They also must handle the more mundane facets of life such as laundry and cooking —which often involves a can opener.

After Mass on this morning, the priests gathered in the kitchen to make their breakfasts — four men darting from refrigerator to sink to stove to toaster. Around the breakfast table the conversation turned toward the seminary attended by Louapre, 78, and the Rev. Niel Jarreau, 81.

"The older generation," cracked Salazar, 64.

In response, he got a perfect lip-vibrating, tongue-extended raspberry from Jarreau.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Twelve Baskets Full: Last Week's Homily

In past weeks the readings have challenged us with threats that if we don’t step up as Christians, that if we don’t plant firm roots and do the kinds of things Jesus asks, we risk being thrown into the fiery furnace, where there will be “wailing and grinding of teeth.” We tend to prefer to fast forward past these parts of the Gospel so that we can focus more on readings like those for today’s mass, which promise that nothing can separate us from God’s love and God will give us all that we need. This is the future we’d rather imagine for ourselves—God accomplishing miracles to heal us and to feed us, not the pain of being separated from God because of our actions. Or, because of our inaction.

Despite the sunnier tone of today’s readings, Jesus’ response to the Apostles in today’s Gospel, “Give them some food yourselves,” challenges them, and us, not just to act, but also not to fail to act when others are in need.

We begin every mass with the penitential prayer, “Lord, have mercy.” But in the longer version of that prayer we are more explicit, confessing and asking forgiveness for, “What I have done, and what I have failed to do.” While we mustn’t live our lives consumed with regret, much good can come from asking the forgiveness of others for ways in which we’ve failed. Most of us who show up to Mass each week probably aren’t spending a lot of time deliberately hurting others by our actions. Our failures tend to be a bit more subtle, but just as real, and potentially just as problematic.

My point, however, is not to dwell on this but instead to propose that today’s readings might help us to understand why we often fail to act as we should, and how we might do better.

Today’s readings are hopeful and reassuring. God says, “Come to the water,” I will provide everything for you! Saint Paul reassures us that “nothing can separate us from the love of God revealed in Christ.” This is what we want to hear.

But think a little more abut what is being said here. God is saying you don’t need to worry about yourself: I am everything that you need. And Christ is showing us, through all that he does for us, that nothing can separate us from God’s love! Just think about that for a bit longer. Now, ask yourself: Do I really believe this? Do I really live it?

I must confess that as much as I’d like to answer with an enthusiastic and unqualified “yes!” to these questions, I have to hesitate a bit. See, I often find myself in situations in which I feel that if I really believed that God was going to take care of everything, I would be doing things differently. Why? Because I tend to play it safe, rather than to give extravagantly like God says he will in the first reading. I think: If I really believed this, I would be giving more money to the poor, putting more in the collection basket, and be living more poorly myself, not always putting that little bit aside “just in case.” I’d be feeding more hungry people. I’d be responding more quickly to those I encounter who are in need, rather than worrying about the risks involved, the consequences, or how it might inconvenience me. If I really believed all this, simply put, I would take more risks and live more radically, in a way more like what I spoke about in last week’s homily. In a way more like Jesus did. Maybe you have had a similar feeling.

But this precisely where the hope in today’s readings lies. Because, like me, you probably have a deep desire to believe these things wholeheartedly. I know that despite my frequent failures, because of that desire, each day I find myself believing it more and more. Growing in this desire has convinced me that the more our belief in God’s generosity, protection and love guides those things that we choose to do, especially those things that we could easily and without significant consequence walk away from, the more we will find ourselves doing amazing, even miraculous things for God and for others. We will love others in ways that seem foolish, but that we know are holy and right. So that when we find ourselves in impossible situations like the Apostles do in today’s Gospel—thousands of people and almost nothing to feed them with—we won’t try to send them home, we won’t even need Jesus to tell us “give them something to eat yourselves,” because, with Jesus’ help, and perhaps risking everything, we will already have found a way to do it. And we will stand back in awe when we see how much we have left over.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Rookie Trappistine!

Congratulations to my good friend Sister Sofia Millican (she's the happy young woman in the middle), who just received her veil and is now officially a novice (I think). Wish I could have been there. I can't wait to go out there and say mass for the sisters when I get home!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Once a Rookie Soccer Player . . . Now a Future Priest

New England Revolution defenseman Chase Hilgenbrinck has retired from Major League Soccer in order to enter seminary.

"I certainly didn’t want the call to pass me by and regret it later. When the Lord comes knocking, you have to answer the door. I really had no choice. I can’t say no. I want to live for the will of God, and that’s doing what he wants of me and not what I want necessarily. Doing the will of the Lord is wanting what he wants for me."

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Flying Host Incident

Well, I knew it was going to happen sooner or later. Apropos of my previous post about receiving the Eucharist (which, by the way, The Irish Catholic asked if they could publish!), I had a communicant who chose to receive on the tongue, but didn't give me much to work with! So, I did my best to try to get it in there, and the next thing I knew, it was flying through the air!

Well, as you can imagine, what followed was flying vestments in a panic! Trying to retrieve the host from the floor--and at the same time not lose the rest--I found myself feeling not only panicked but also embarrassed and angry. Not exactly what I want to be feeling when I'm distributing Holy Communion!

Nevertheless, I recovered, made it on the second try with a new host, and then finished with the rest of the line. Then there was the somewhat unpleasant but unavoidable question of what to do with the lipstick-stained host that I had retrieved from the floor. There was only one thing to do--consume it. Which I did.

The moral of the story, I guess: These things happen, and you do what you have to do. Still, I felt a little bad about getting angry. Nobody said anything, so I hope I was able to keep something of a poker face.

The Rookie Priest Files: James Martin, SJ

I thought it might be nice for you all to hear now and then from a priest besides myself about his experience of the early days of priesthood. My friend and brother Jesuit, James Martin, has been kind enough to provide the first installment:

The Spirit is in Charge!

A few months after my ordination in 1999, I was scheduled to celebrate a Mass at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in New York City, where I have my regular Sunday assignment. When I opened the schedule of readings for the week, I was delighted to discover that it was one of my favorites: the story of the Annunciation, from the Gospel of Luke. While I was praying about that passage, it dawned on me that the story of Mary's interaction with the Angel Gabriel perfectly encapsulated our own spiritual lives. God took the initiative with Mary; Mary questioned; God reassured her; Mary said yes; and God brought something new--Jesus--out of her "yes." How often that is with us--we sense that God is asking us to do something new in our lives; we question whether we can do what God asks; God reassures us; and when we finally say "yes" something wonderful happens.

Anyway, I was eagerly anticipating the reactions of the congregation to my supposedly wonderful homily. So, on that Sunday, I preached with great fervor, and, after Mass, waited for the inevitable praise. What did I get?


That is, nothing. Not even the standared "Nice homily, Father." It was rather baffling. What happened?

The next week was a busy one for me and, uncharacteristically, I wasn't able to spend a lot of time on the homily for the next Sunday. So on Friday I more or less dashed it off. Nothing special, just some reflections on how we can meet God in the everyday, finding God in all things, and all that.

I delivered it tentatively that Sunday, as if knowing that I was giving the congregation only a mediocre effort.

The result?

Afterwards people approached me in tears, telling me how moved they were. "Thank you so much, Father!" "So helpful!" "Beautiful!"

It didn't take me long before I realized that those two homilies had taught me something about preaching: something that both consoled me a freed me. Pray and prepare of course as much as you can. But remember that, ultimately, it is not you who move people's hearts. It is the Holy Spirit who does so. The Spirit is in charge--not you!

James Martin, SJ is a Jesuit priest and author of "My Life with the Saints" and "A Jesuit Off-Broadway."

Internal Dialogue: Conspicuous Guests

"Looks like two Legionaries in the congregation--should I be nervous?"

(Actually, I spoke with them after mass. They were very nice.)