The Year of the Priest

Fr. Joel Priesthood

Fr. Joel
The Pope has decided to declare this upcoming year, “The Year of the Priest.” The new patron of priesthood will be St. John Vianney, the great parish priest of Ars, France. In his catechism lesson on priesthood, the famous cure’ said:

The priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the Sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you… When people wish to destroy religion, they begin by attacking the priest, because where there is no longer any priest there is no sacrifice, and where there is no longer any sacrifice there is no religion…
What joy did the Apostles feel after the Resurrection of Our Lord, at seeing the Master whom they had loved so much! The priest must feel the same joy at seeing Our Lord whom he holds in his hands. Great value is attached to objects which have been laid in the drinking cup of the Blessed Virgin and of the Child Jesus, at Loretto. But the fingers of the priest, that have touched the adorable Flesh of Jesus Christ, that have been plunged into the chalice which contained His Blood, into the pyx where His Body has lain, are they not still more precious? The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus.

It seems, then, that the essence of priesthood is unconditional love. Is that even possible?

It was so Cold, my Oil Froze!

Fr. Joel Priesthood

Last week I was called out to the hospital to anoint a sick person. He had become suddenly ill at home and was rushed to the hospital. The family was shocked and upset when I met them in the ICU. “Father, can you anoint him please?” We went in together.
I have nifty kit I use for anointing of the sick. It consists of a glass bottle of oil, the ritual book that contains the prayers, and a small stole, all contained in a leather Bible case. I keep the kit in my car so I can always have it with me. When I took out the stole I observed that it was cold and stiff. This week the weather had been below 0 degrees for 52 hours and everything was cold. Even though my car sits in a garage the kit had still become very chilly. I said some of the introductory prayers and took out the oil to anoint him.
The oil was frozen.
I shook the bottle upside down and nothing would come out. As the family cried softly in the background, I commented to myself, “I guess my oil is frozen.” Awkward silence followed as I looked around for a quick solution. Maybe I could dig the oil out with my pocket knife. I opened the small blade, scooped out a dollop of oil and wiped it on my thumb. The I reached towards his forehead and said, “By this holy anointing…” and the oil slipped right off my thumb and fell on his shoulder. It was rapidly changing consistency from lotion to oil. I scooped it up again with my fingers and anointed his forehead. It left the usual light smear of olive oil, but one little stubborn bit sat up defiantly and refused to melt. Then I dug out another glop of oil with the pocketknife and, carefully balancing it on my thumb, I anointed his hands.
“Thank you so much, Father,” the family said through sobs.
I finished the prayers and discretely slipped the bottle in my pocket to warm it up.

Ministry is full of surprises.

PS: By popular request as a followup to a previous posting, here is a picture of me all dressed up and ready for cold weather.

White and Drifting Snow

Fr. Joel Life on Planet Earth

Fr. Joel

Last winter was, well, very wintery. Having recently spent time in Italy, I would often walk outside in only a sweater or vest, only to have to turn around and put on a heavy coat. I decided this winter, I would be prepared. The first thing I had to deal with was tires that were nearly bald. I shopped around a bit once the cold weather came, but then with time running out I finally got the job done at the beginning of November, just before the first large snowfall. I spent extra for tires that were rated well in snow. At Thanksgiving, I figured it was one of the last nice days so I finally washed and waxed my car so the salt and grime wouldn’t affect it so much. Good thinking, considering the ice storm we got one Sunday morning in January.

Most people might consider this to be prepared, but I wasn’t done yet. Not by a long shot. I love hats and I can never understand people that go out without one. However, with hats you usually have to choose between two options. On the one hand, there are nice baseball caps that keep your face protected, but sacrifice your ears. On the other hand there are stocking caps that keep the ears toasty but let snow and sleet attach your face. Enter the Stormy Kromer, a perfect winter hat made in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you don’t mind the “Civil War Soldier” look, your face and ears are well-protected.
Ever notice how important are warm feet? The rest of you can be toasty warm but if your feet get cold you will be miserable. I frequently need to wear dress shoes, such as when celebrating Mass. Dress shoes do not protect you from the cold, nor prevent your sliding around on the snow. I looked at some boots and finally settled for an old-fashioned solution: overshoes. They make this nifty versions now that cover your shin. You can walk through blizzards, step inside, and have perfectly warm and dry feet. Even better, your shoes don’t squeak because they are not wet. Our grandparents were geniuses.

Some people might have accused me of being over-prepared. Those people do not live in Wisconsin, or if they do, they are currently recovering from pneumonia. We got record snow fall in December. When we wake up to sunny days, it is because the weather is freezing cold. Like today, -17 this morning. Actual temperature; windchill was -35.

I may look pretty goofy all dressed up but at least I’m warm. Yes, its been a wonderful Wisconsin winter for all those with a steady supply of hot chocolate and home-made marshmallows.

Fr. Joel’s homily for Jan. 1

Fr. Joel Homilies

I couldn’t record my homily today, so I typed it instead. I hope you enjoy reading.

Christmas, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.

Happy New Year!
In many Asian cultures, it is very important to start the new year off right. The children try to treat elders with the utmost respect and be as good as possible on this day so that the New Year gets off to a good start. We have all started off right by coming to Mass today on the feast of Mary, the Mother of God.

This feast used to be called the feast of the Circumcision. The Mosaic law prescribed circumcision eight days after birth. On this day, Jesus received his circumcision. In celebrating this feast, we recalled that Jesus was a Jewish child. He was raised according to all the laws and traditions and cultures of the Jewish people. Early Christian writers recognized in this day the sacrifice of Jesus. This was the first time Jesus shed his blood. This little sacrifice called to mind how Christ had come to save us by the shedding of his blood.

In the modern calendar, the focus of the feast has shifted to the Motherhood of Mary, with the consequence that men are much more comfortable. Mary, the Mother of God — what does it mean? Mary offered her Motherhood in the service of God. She received the Divine Life, carried it in her womb, and then birthed this life into the world. Mary made the sacrifice of her own body, her own life, so that we could receive the our Savior and Eternal Life. In doing so, she has become the model of all motherhood.

What does Mary show us about Motherhood? Motherhood is about new life. It is about receiving life, nurturing that life, and bringing it forth into the world. Only women are capable of carrying a new human life. However, motherhood doesn’t stop with the birthing of a child. In addition the the purely biological motherhood, there is something more important. We human beings are both biological and spiritual. The biological reality points to a more fundamental Spiritual reality. In this case, the biological gift that is Motherhood points to the more important reality of Spiritual Motherhood. A woman named Katrina Zeno in her book Every Woman’s Journey defines spiritual motherhood as, “nurturing the emotional, moral, cultural, and spiritual life of others.”

It is uniquely the woman’s gift to nurture in this way. Pope John Paul II called this gift, “The Genius of Women”. A genius is someone who can do things the rest of us cannot do. Michaelangelo and Leonardo were geniuses. They could take paint and create something fantastic. They could take an ordinary block of marble and create something new and beautiful from it. In the same way, a woman can do something no other person can do. She can nurture the emotional, moral, cultural and spiritual life of others. This is the genius of women.

If a woman does not fulfill her role of Spiritual Motherhood, no one can take her place. Just as a man cannot bear a child, so a man cannot be a Spiritual Mother. When a woman is in labor, the man is forced to stand idly by. As much as he might like to help, the woman has to do all the work. But the fact that he is standing by is very important. The fact that a man is standing by to help, and is there to catch the baby, makes a huge difference in the life of both the mother and the child. A man must never discount his role simply because the woman seems to be taking care of things. Men support, protect and help women in their role as Spiritual Mothers. I cannot tell you how many women I have talked to who have suffered greatly because the men around them did not accept their motherhood, be it biological or spiritual. The men wanted women to be something else besides mothers, and in doing so harmed not only the women, but the whole human family. A man indeed plays a marvelous role in the Spiritual Motherhood of women.

Today we celebrate Motherhood. We celebrate the fact that Mary sacrificed her life and her body to bring the world a savior. We celebrate all the sacrifices that every woman makes in living as a spiritual mother. Today, baby Jesus bled for us in a small sacrifice. His small sacrifices would add up to our salvation. In the same way, Mary’s many small sacrifices added up to the Savior. Every human being owes its life to the Motherhood of a woman; we owe our Eternal Life to the Motherhood of the woman named Mary. She received the Divine Life, nurtured it, and birthed him into the world. She gave birth not only to his life, but to the entire Christian World. As we celebrated the 2009th Year of Our Lord, we entrust the coming year to the Motherhood of Mary. May she teach us how to receive the Divine Life, nurture it, and give birth to Christ in our world today.

1 Jan. 2009

Quality of Life

Fr. Joel The Loving Life

Fr. Joel

I recently became aware of a medical condition known as Trisomy-18 or Edwards Syndrome. It is somewhat similar to Down Syndrome in that it is caused by an additional chromosome. A normal human being has a total of 46 chromosomes arranged in 23 pairs. Each pair consists of one chromosome from the Father and one from the Mother. If a child has an extra copy of the 18th chromosome, this is called Trisomy-18. Incidentally, Down Syndrome is also called Trisomy-21 and is caused by an extra copy of the 21st chromosome.
The result of this disease is a child that does not develop correctly, including underdeveloped heart, kidney problems and motor skills problems. The majority of children with this disease die in utero or shortly after. Here is a beautiful video about a child with this disease. It makes me wonder which is more important:
How long a child lives?
How much a child is loved?

Dark Nights

Benjamin Society Today

Fr. J: So you finally saw The Dark Knight. What did you think?

Fr. B: It was powerful. It was long and rather dark, but the director moved the plot along well so it didn’t drag. I like the fact that the action followed the story and not the other way around.

Fr. J: I found it a very heavy movie. It was very well written and also very well acted; the dialog was superb. Heath Leger did a tremendous job with the character of the Joker to the point that he really stole the show. Perhaps it should have been named “The Joker” instead. I felt that the character of the Joker was pure evil and it made the movie more than just dark.

Fr. B: I agree that the Joker was a heavy character, and some of his monologues were just too much, but what do you mean “more than just dark?”

Fr. J: The Joker was really kind of an incarnation of Satan. He was pure evil. He had no history, no name, and existed just to do evil. Batman had a difficult time with him. The movie calls into question the meaning and purpose of Batman in Gotham City but it never really answered the questions. What is his purpose? He exists to stop evil, which means he is constantly reacting to the Joker and always a step or two behind.

Fr. B: I thought in a way the movie did answer the question. The Joker is so completely evil that his only motivation is to cause destruction, but this forces a kind of reckoning on the characters, a judgment of their real motivations. Harvey Dent “falls” because his motivation is not pure, and his character becomes a living representation of this, but Bruce Wayne’s true quality is shown through the film.

Fr. J: And what is Bruce Wayne’s true character? Why does he do good? He could end all the mahem just by killing the Joker, yet he refuses. The movie should have ended with the showdown in front of the tractor trailer truck. It could have too, if Batman had killed him.

Fr. B: I think that would have been the “easy out” that most movies take. Remember that Bruce was afraid of what he would have to become to stop the Joker; an evil character, one who deals death at will.
Because he refuses to take this path, he only has one other way open to him, the way of self sacrifice. He sacrifices his personal desires for the good of the city.

Fr. J: His sacrifice certainly isn’t appreciated by Gotham, which would prefer to sell him out. Batman puts Harvey Dent forward as the hero who can save Gotham, but ultimately I guess you’re right. Harvey is unwilling to suffer. That makes the difference between the two characters.

Fr. B: The Joker thinks that every person is fundamentally evil, and if pushed hard enough their evil side will dominate. Harvey Dent proves him right, at least for a moment. However, the episode with the ferries is the ultimate example. The Joker thinks that, out of fear, the people will destroy each other in a dog-eat-dog attempt to save themselves.
Batman believes that people are fundamentally good, and the episode with the ferries proves that he is correct, and I think it shows the movie’s message: if you are willing to suffer rather than do evil, then evil cannot ultimately hurt you. That is the solution to the “unsolvable” problem that the Joker perpetually poses.

Fr. J: I also loved the scene with the two ferry boats. It was played out very well and really showed what human nature is capable of. I was a little disappointed with the way the movie ended — I felt the end of the Harvey Dent plot line was just added frustration on top of an already difficult movie. Batman was fighting against lies — people who were cops, and yet were on the take as well. And in the end, he seems to choose a lie over the truth when he says, “Sometimes people deserve more than the truth.” In fact, the whole voice-over at the end was disappointing. It didn’t explain what had happened; it just set us up for a sequel.

Fr. B: The biggest weakness of this movie, and the previous Batman Begins, is that Bruce Wayne/Batman’s character is underdeveloped. He isn’t submerged by the Joker, but still we don’t know what he is thinking and we don’t know why he is good or what his hopes are. I wonder if perhaps the writers don’t know. It is so much easier for us to believe a purely evil character than one who is good; good characters in movies are generally twisted and struggling people who happen to do good.

Fr. J: Or they are simply good with no explanation, as in this case. The Batman character was the one real weakness of the movie. I suppose he believes in the goodness of Gotham and is willing to fight for it, even if it means he can never live a normal life. Which leads to my own personal conclusion about the movie — superheroes need to be celibate. Look at the last Superman movie. Look at the struggle played out in the three Spiderman movies between Peter Parker’s loyalty to MJ and his loyalty to the people of the city. Maybe that’s what priesthood is all about — fighting for the goodness in others at the expense of a “normal” life.

Fr. B: Sorry to end this, there’s a light in the sky…


Fr. Joel Life on Planet Earth

I just came back from an early showing of the spectacular new PIXAR film “WALL-E”. I have to confess that I am a big fan of Pixar films. They have a genius for attention to detail and for creating compelling characters with real personality. Wall-E is no exception. It opens on the planet Earth in approximately the year 2800. The huge corporate conglomerate B-n-L (Buy n Large) is cleaning up mountains of trash left on planet Earth. At least, they began the clean-up, but now only one little robot is left working. Meanwhile, as we have made the planet uninhabitable, the last remaining humans are out in space. They float around on flying chairs with screens in front of them, imprisoned by their own sedentariness. The world unfolds slowly following a day in the life of Wall-E. He has developed a creative curiosity that begins to affect everyone he meets.

People who have studied Theology of the Body will be amazed by the unfolding plot. In the midst of his solitude, Wall-E is suddenly confronted with a new being, a dangerous but fascinating robot on some kind of special mission. The plot hinges on the ‘gift of life’ which must be guarded and protected. In the midst of a depressing future, life brings not only hope but also a new creation.

Our particular showing was interrupted mid-way by technical difficulties. At first I thought it was intentional — in the film, the humans discover themselves only when their ever-present entertainment screen is interrupted. Our audience experienced the same thing and were frustrated by it. The boy in front of me whipped out his cell phone and started playing games. Perhaps modern man cannot live without a screen in front of him. As a final kind of irony, movie goers were offered a free Chinese-made Wall-E watch (pictured above), with advertisements for an upcoming Disney movie. You might think that promoters would avoid giving out junk when the movie is about the build-up of trash. Ultimately, the bleak backdrop of a trashed world is overcome by a love that is willing to welcome life. I highly recommend this movie. WALL-E is all about what it means to be human.

Lourdes, France

Benjamin Life on Planet Earth

My second stop on the Easter trip was the tiny town of Lourdes, at the edge of the Pyrenees in South-western France. There, in 1858, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to a young girl named Bernadette along a river near the town. The apparition was investigated thoroughly and approved by the Church. What keeps pilgrims coming, besides the motivation of prayer, is a spring of water which bubbled up from the ground. Our Lady told Bernadette to wash in the spring and to drink from it, which she did. Pilgrims came to bathe in the waters and many were healed, resulting in an unbelievable number of sick and those in wheel chairs coming to the shrine every year. It is, I believe, the most visited Marian shrine in the world. Our visit coincided with the “HCPT pilgrimage,” which brings 5000 people from the United Kingdom to Lourdes every year.
I was able to celebrate Mass three times at one of the small altars in the middle of the basilica. The basilica is three levels, the lower level being dedicated to the mysteries of the Rosary and decorated with mosaics. The middle level has small altars and chapels for Masses, and the upper level is a proper church. It was build beside and above the grotto, while leaving the famous cave intact and open to the air. A statue there shows where Mary appeared to Bernadette, and an altar was set up for outdoor Masses.
Our visit was characterized most of all by water. First, of course, there was the water from the grotto, which I also bathed in, not for any physical healing but carrying some spiritual intentions for certain people. For those who are wondering, this is not the outdoor polar plunge; the water runs into a series of tubs where volunteers help the pilgrims take a dip very privately. Besides this water, there was a nearly constant rain, which rolled across the town and filled the river. Water in the Bible is almost always a creative force, and it seemed fitting for the week following Easter. It was, however, rather cold, and we gratefully took refuge in the coffee shops and restaurants. There are, of course, many ways to celebrate the end of Lent and the Resurrection of the Lord.

Ars, France

Benjamin Priesthood

The best way to learn about the history of the Church and the lives of the saints is to visit it. The week after Easter I took a pilgrimage to France. Many people think that vacations should not involve too many goals or plans, but we set out with an ambitious four part plan:
1) Sleep
2) Eat
3) Pray
4) See something.
Sometimes it was difficult to fit it all in but we managed as best we could.

Our first stop was the tiny town of Ars in central France, north of Lyon. A French priest named Jean-Marie Vianney was sent there to be pastor in 1818. He had not been a good student of Latin and consequently struggled to learn his theology, even being sent away once from the seminary despite his best efforts to learn. He was finally ordained more because of his evident love of God than any other reason. The bishop was probably thinking of this when he sent him to Ars, saying “There isn’t much love of God in that town; you will have to bring it.” So the priest set out, on foot, from Lyon to Ars. Near the town he encountered a little shepherd boy and asked him to point out the way to Ars. When the boy did, he said, “You have shown me the way to Ars, and I will show you the way to heaven.”

True to his word, the priest set about doing all in his power to preach the Gospel. He soon became famous as a holy man who lived in an austere life and had great gifts. One of his greatest was hearing confessions, and more and more people came to confess to him until he was hearing confessions 16 hours a day. With morning Mass, teaching catechism, and eating, he only slept about three hours a night. It was his prayer that sustained him. In fact he wanted to leave the parish to be more dedicated to the contemplative life, but the bishop and the people refused to let him go, insisting he did too much good in the parish. He died at the age of 73, and soon afterwards a large basilica was added to his parish church to accommodate the pilgrims who came. He was named the patron saint of parish priests. The town today is still very small, but with the presence of the shrine and the pilgrims it has changed forever. We can say that John Vianney brought the love of God, and it is still there today.

Online Confessional

Benjamin Priesthood

Modern man has come a long way from crawling up to a wooden box to confess his sins to a priest. A recent article on CNN discusses the rise of online confession of sins. A brand of websites, generally started by large Protestant churches in the United States, allow you to anonymously post your sins in a digital admission of guilt. You can even browse through others confessions and leave comments if you want. In my opinion, it is bad enough to have your sins haunting the back of your mind, why would anyone would want their sins scattered to the winds of the world wide web? I suppose the promise of anonymity encourages the web savvy to find solace in the embrace of the internet. After all, the greatest burden of the sinner is feeling alone and cut off from the “good people” of the world by some unmentionable private sin. In a strange way, the sin becomes a ticket into a communion of sinners gathered around the warmth of a glowing plasma screen.

It bears mentioning that the Catholic confession is a completely different experience. Technology is almost non-existent; only the priest and the penitent and a screen between them, and you can dispense with the screen if you want. Anonymity is not guaranteed, in fact, it can be an intensely personal experience. The confidence that your sins will not be spread to others demands trust in the priest and in the Church who forbids any priest to reveal the sin of a penitent. The most intimidating thing about confession is, perhaps, the fact that the priest is not a silent screen. He is free to ask for more information; details that are easy to skip over to make the sin sound “not so bad.”

Yet confession offers something that other forms of self-accusation never could, reconciliation with God and with the community. There is no need for the whole community to hear a person’s transgressions, and if they are good people, they aren’t really interested. The priest takes the burden on himself, and hears the sin on behalf of the community and offers their forgiveness. More importantly, the priest hears the confession on behalf of God and offers his forgiveness, through a human voice and a human face.

The biggest difference between a online admission of guilt and Catholic confession is that the first is centered on the person and on their sin. Catholic confession is centered on the love and the mercy of God, made visible in the scriptures and in Jesus Christ. The sins a person has committed, no matter how terrible, are like drops of blood in the fire of God’s love. In front of that, our sins don’t stand a chance. Confession helps us to grow in the spiritual life, and the first thing we need to learn is that we aren’t really that important, and neither are our sins. It isn’t like we just committed a sin that no one ever did before. The second lesson to the spiritual life is that we are important to God, and confession is really an encounter with that God who loves us and is calling us to a greater life than what we have been living. This realization changes the nature of confession forever. Perhaps the reason why few people approach confession is that no one really believes that God loves them, and they think the best we can hope for is a big online hug.