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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Homily for the First Sunday in Lent

Just as Jesus spent forty days in the desert fasting in preparation for the beginning of His earthly ministry, we prepare for the celebration of His passion, death, and resurrection through these forty days of Lent. It seems ironic that the readings given to us during this “desert time” of Lent talk about water and floods, two things you usually won't find in a desert, but these readings bring home the importance of baptism in our lives, making us sharers in Christ's Paschal Mystery which we celebrate at Easter.

The first reading today is one that I think is very familiar for most of us. God has just cleansed the face of the Earth with a massive flood, wiping out every living thing except those which were saved through the Ark of Noah. God sets up a covenant with Noah, promising that he will never again devastate the Earth through a great flood.

For the Israelite people, water was something that was both respected and feared. Water was a necessary element, as it has been throughout all of human history, and was used much as we use it today. It was also greatly feared, especially large bodies of water, like the Mediterranean Sea. They knew the destructive force that water could contain, especially in the flash floods that occurs in many desert climates, and had a healthy fear of large amounts of water.

While they feared the water, they also realized the cleansing power that water contains. They knew how quickly water could remove the dust and grime that came with travel or work in the fields. Ritual baths and washings were important aspects of their worship, nearly as important as the sacrifices themselves. Just as it would clean the dirt off the skin, water was also thought to spiritually cleanse, thus the development of baptism.

St. Peter keys on this cleansing aspect of water in our second reading today. He says that the Great Flood “prefigured baptism, which saves you now.” Through our baptism, we share in saving effects of the Paschal Mystery, the passion, death, and resurrection of Our Lord. No longer is water a force used by God towards destruction of humanity, but is used by Him to save us and renew us. God uses the waters of baptism to destroy the effects of Original Sin, which is passed down from Adam and Eve, and bring us the Sanctifying Grace which we need to enter into the Kingdom of God.

Before Our Lord suffered on the Cross, humanity was closed off from the Kingdom of God. We were suffering from the effects of Original Sin and could not enter into that Kingdom. Those who came before were not automatically condemned, however, as St. Peter tells us that they were waiting “in prison”, also commonly known as the Abode of the Fathers, for the coming of Christ. We say as such when we profess during the Apostles' Creed, “He descended to the dead”. This Abode of the Fathers is not the fiery pit where condemned souls go, but rather a place where those righteous souls resided until Our Lord opened the gates of Heaven through His death and resurrection. These souls have been judged and are now enjoying the rewards of God's presence.

Unlike the time of the Patriarchs and Prophets of Israel, we believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand now, as Our Lord preached. We can enter into that Kingdom now, and do so through our baptism. By the waters of baptism, we die to our sinful nature, and rise again as an adopted child of God. The water cleanses us of our sins, and brings us the Holy Spirit. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can repent from those sins which we commit and believe in the teachings of Jesus, as we are commanded in the Gospel reading today.

St. Peter reminds us that Jesus “suffered for [our] sins once […] that He might lead you to God.” Through our baptism, we have become followers of Christ. By repenting of our sins and believing in the Gospel, we prepare ourselves for that day when we will see Our Lord face to face in our Heavenly home.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Request for Info: Catholic Sites in Central Canada

I'm planning to take a week and do a road trip through parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba. Does anyone have any recommendations for Catholic-related sites (shrines, cathedrals, etc.) that are worth visiting within those provinces? On the same vein, are there any sites that I should avoid?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vocation Story part 3 - Civilian Life

As I left Scott AFB for what I thought was my last time, I had a lot of uncertainty in my life. I didn't know when I'd get a job. I didn't know where I would be living. Everything that I owned was under a tarp in the box of my truck. This truly was the closest I've ever come to being homeless, and in fact was technically homeless for a couple of weeks.

Through a series of connections and the grace of God, my time as a homeless person didn't last long. One friend offered to let me stay at his house until the job situation was sorted out. Another friend had a connection to a landlord who had recently remodeled a couple of duplexes that were available to rent. My resume which I had posted on an Internet job search site had finally gotten a strong prospect. In short order, after only a couple of weeks, I had a job and a place to live, so I thought things were going well.

During this time, I was making Sunday Mass attendance a priority. Unlike previous moves, I wasn't going to wait a couple of weeks, or even months, to get to Mass. Instead, I went back to St. Clare Parish in O'Fallon, which happened to be only about 5 miles from my new apartment, and formally registered as a member of the parish. I also introduced myself to Fr. Jim, the pastor. We had met briefly when I was “church shopping” before the end of my enlistment, but it was pretty brief, just a quick handshake at the end of Mass.

My new job was on the other side of St. Louis, in the western suburbs, so I began to experience the joys of commuting that so many other Americans trudge through every day. For two hours each day, one hour each way, I had nothing better to do than sit in my truck, drive, and listen to the radio. At first, I would listen to the typical music on the radio, but shortly after I began working, a friend introduced me to WRYT 1080 AM, a Catholic radio station. Catholic radio? There's such a thing? I knew about EWTN, even though I never had the opportunity to watch it, but had not heard of Catholic radio. I started listening and was hooked. More good information, and I could learn as I drove to and from work. This was great!

I had learned a lot from the Catholic Answers website, so I was excited to hear that they also had a radio program, Catholic Answers Live. Oh, boy, more good stuff! There was no end to the amount of material that I could learn about the faith, whether apologetics, Church teachings, history, you name it.
Of course, Catholic Answers Live wasn't the end of the great programs that I was able to listen to. Because WRYT used EWTN for much of its source material, I also got to hear Mother Angelica, the Journey Home, Life on the Rock, and much more. This was an information fire hose, and I just had to turn on the radio!

The more I learned about the faith through the radio and Internet, the more involved I wanted to be. I started to get more active in the parish, volunteering to be a Lector and Eucharistic Minister – now more accurately called an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion. I was also getting involved in communal prayer, such as the Rosary, and was starting to meet new people through my involvement.

It was about this time that I met a couple who has been a strong supporter of my vocation, even throughout our respective moves. I don't remember if I first met Mike and Denise at Mass or as part of a communal prayer, but we quickly became friends. Having met and worked with a lot of people my age who were barely Catholic at best, it was exciting to meet a young couple, a little older than me, who were as excited about the Faith as I was.

One day, Mike invited me to an evening of reflection at the Opus Dei center in St. Louis. He explained that it involved a couple of spiritual conferences, exposition and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and reception of the Sacrament of Confession. I had heard of Opus Dei through my research, and was interested in what this evening of reflection was all about, so I agreed to go. It was incredible! Two powerful conferences with lots of silent time for adoration. Following the conferences, there was time for socializing, and it was amazing to meet more Catholic men who were on fire for the Catholic Faith. They loved the Church, they loved her teachings, and they weren't afraid to say so. It was a powerful experience for me, and one I had the privilege to repeat many times over. I even began to look forward to these evenings of reflection, especially as the job and commute became more intolerable.

By the end of the first year out of the Air Force, I'd felt like I'd had enough of the job I was doing. It wasn't a bad job, just wasn't what I expected when I was first hired. My experience from the Air Force was that of a computer administrator, keeping servers and networks up and running so that users can get to them 24 hours a day. The job I was doing was more data manipulation, working with a database to set up reports for customers. Not my interest, so my performance at that job suffered. A weakness that I am still working on is my extreme procrastination towards tasks I find unpleasant, and much of this job fell into that category.

My Knights of Columbus connection came through about this time. One of the members of the Scott AFB council was working for a military contractor which specialized in computer programming. They were looking for a computer administrator who knew UNIX, which I happened to know. It was 6 months on base at the main server facility, with the potential to continue with the company for further contracts. This was the job I was looking for. I really thought God was looking out for me.

Well, it turns out He was, just not the way I expected. The main server facility was next to one of the headquarters buildings on base, and had a small restaurant where I would go for lunch. It was also where my friend Mike worked as part of his job, as he was an officer in the Air Force. One day, around noon, I was walking over to the restaurant and ran into Mike. He was heading to daily Mass, and invited me to join him. He had been encouraging me to consider trying to get to daily Mass, and I had plenty of excuses why I couldn't. On this day, the excuses ran out, and I walked with him to the base chapel. From that day on, I would regularly go to daily Mass before grabbing a quick lunch.

It was at daily Mass at the chapel that I first performed the role of altar server, having not done it as a child. I think that this was the turning point in my discernment process, as I started to get a better appreciation for the Mass and how important it needed to be in my life. Instead of just going to Mass once a week to get it “done with”, I was daily present at the Sacrifice on Calvary and receiving Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.

About this time, I found out that my friend Matt, who had given me a place to stay when I was between the Air Force and my first job, was not baptized. I had seen him at Mass, and never seen him receive communion. One day I asked him why, and after hearing that he wasn't baptized, asked him if he had ever considered going through baptism. He said that he had, and was considering going through RCIA at the parish.

A couple of weeks later, Matt asked me if I would be willing to be his sponsor through RCIA. I agreed, and for the next year, Matt and I caused trouble during the RCIA classes (in a good way, of course). I was learning a lot about the Faith, but Matt was a voracious reader. He even read the Catechism of the Catholic Church all the way through! (Something I've never done, admittedly.) We never directly contradicted the instructors, but we did ask some questions that they had no idea how to answer. After he completed the RCIA process, and received the Sacraments at the Easter Vigil, I turned to ask him how he felt following the reception of three Sacraments at once. I didn't have to. The tears of joy said it all.

With all this going on, the defenses were starting to go down. I found that I was actually willing to consider a vocation to the priesthood, although I wasn't going to make any commitments at that time. It would still take another year and a half before I finally submitted my will to God's divine will.

Continue to Part 4 - God's 2x4

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Homily for the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Recently, I've been writing up my vocation story, the story of how I discerned my calling to the priesthood. As I'm writing it down, I hit a point in my life that I really felt was my moment of conversion, that moment when I took the Catholic faith that I had been raised in and made it a part of my life. All of us need to go through this conversion process at some point in our lives.

For many Catholics, the idea of conversion is someone converting from another Christian denomination or non-Christian religion to Catholicism, such as those we'll see in a few moments who are going through the RCIA process here in the parish. While that's true as far as it goes, there is another sense of conversion, that of converting our lives away from ourselves and turning it towards Christ.

Unfortunately, many Catholics haven't consciously made that step, but continue to follow the practices of their parents because “that's what we've always done.” I think if we're honest, we would realize that there are some in this church today who feel this way. We come to Mass on Saturday night or Sunday morning “because we've always done that on the weekends.” We might have a Rosary or crucifix in our houses “because we've always had one.”

While “that's what we've always done” is a good start on the way to conversion, it's not the final goal of a Christian. The purpose of Christianity and being a follower of Christ is to convert our lives away from the things of the world and towards the things of God, and to live with Him in the next life. Jesus came to preach the Gospel of salvation and lead us away from the temptations and condemnation of the world. We are called to follow Him, even to the Cross if necessary.

As followers, we must be open to His word. In the Gospel today, we see that a large crowd had surrounded Him when he arrived at home. Why were they there? The quick answer might be the miracles that He performed, and there is some truth to that. However, the Gospel passage makes it clear that they gathered to hear Him “preach the word”. They had gathered together to hear the Good News, the Gospel, of salvation. Their hearts were open to hear what He had to say and to accept the Truth that He preached.

To determine our openness to the Truth of Christ, there are some questions we have to ask ourselves. How open are our hearts when we come to Our Lord here at Mass? Do we consciously ask the Holy Spirit to open our hearts to the Truths contained in the Scriptures? How many are listening to me now, trying to find the Truth scattered amongst my homiletic ramblings? Do we receive Our Lord with gratitude and joy when we come forward to receive the Eucharist? We can't have a conversion of heart without an openness to Christ.

Being open to Christ's Truth isn't the only thing we need to have a true conversion. We also need to act on that Truth which we believe. In the case of the paralytic in today's Gospel, it wasn't enough for the four men and the paralytic to just have faith that Jesus would heal him, but they had to act on that faith. They had to climb up to the roof, remove the tile or thatch which made up the roof, and lower the paralytic into the room where Jesus was preaching. Through the act of faith displayed by the actions of the four men, the paralytic was able to be healed.

In our lives as well, it is not enough to have faith in Our Lord, but we also need to act on it. In a true conversion, we will be drawn to spread our faith through living it out in our daily lives. Too often Christians are called hypocrites because they say one thing, but live a life totally separated from it. We must truly be willing to both show our faith in Jesus through both our actions and our words. If anything, it is better to live a Christian life and allow our lives to be examples without saying a word than to talk long and hard about Christian virtue without living it.

When we are open to hearing the Truth that Our Lord proclaimed and live out that Truth in our lives, then we will have a conversion of heart. Isaiah promised the Israelites that God would do something new for them in their exile. We can also take that promise as something new will happen in our lives when we enter into the conversion that we're all called to undertake.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Vocation Story part 2 - Air Force

As I was undergoing the preparation for Confirmation, I said that my plan included going to college and getting a degree right after high school. That plan changed fairly quickly as I started getting the recruiting packages from colleges and universities throughout the country. I became overwhelmed with the different schools that I could choose from and the different majors that were available to me.

While that was bad enough, I also started looking at the costs associated with these schools and became even more overwhelmed. You see, I wasn't what one would call the most dedicated student in the world. I pulled fairly decent grades, but I was not applying myself for anything. A few subjects I enjoyed, like Math, Science, Band and Choir, and was rewarded with good grades in those classes. Other classes, such as English, weren't my favorites and the grades suffered accordingly.

As I started to look at the costs of colleges and universities, I realized that full-ride scholarships probably weren't in my future. I just didn't have the grades, and it was all but impossible to be in the top ten percent of your class when you were one of only 31 members. I started to look for other options, and found it at a college fair in a neighboring town.

I think most people are familiar with the concept of a college fair. All the colleges that are trying to recruit high school seniors gather in a school gymnasium and give out free pens, brochures and other goodies to try sign up as many potential students on their mailing lists as possible. My school was too small to hold its own college fair, and instead joined several other small towns in Sidney, MT, for a larger fair.

I was walking around this fair, talking with representatives from both major Montana universities and looking at the smaller colleges that were there, when I came to a booth that had been placed underneath the basketball hoop at one end of the gym. It was the United States Air Force, an option I hadn't considered, and a well-dressed military recruiter was visiting with a couple of other high schoolers. I went over and started looking at the all the information he had available. The other students left, and he started talking with me for a few minutes. My interest was peaked, especially over the college money available through the Air Force, and gave him my contact information.

Over the next couple of months, I met with him a couple of times when he would make his rounds through the northeast corner of Montana. The more we talked, the more interested I became in the Air Force. My parents were concerned, as I think most parents are when their children start talking about joining the military, but were supportive. I eventually decided that this was what I needed to do after high school, and began the paperwork and physicals. Little did I know the effect this would have on how I would grow in my faith.

The rest of my Senior year continued as expected. People around town were surprised that I would consider the Air Force, as I wasn't the most athletic person in the world (I'm still not). The recruiter kept in touch throughout the time of waiting for graduation and my date to ship out for Basic Training. It was a time of anticipation both for the end of high school and start of a new life, and the Faith still wasn't an important aspect in my life. It was there, just not very important.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, graduation came and went, and my date for Basic Training arrived. I went off to Basic Training, with the expected tears from Mom, and the world changed. Anyone who has ever been through one of the training programs when entering the military can tell horror stories about their time at Boot, Basic, or whatever the military branch calls it.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and it may be true, but there are also no atheists at Basic Training. On Sunday morning, we were given the option to go to services or clean the barracks. What do you think most of us chose? My Mass attendance at Basic was exemplary, didn't miss once in the six weeks of training. All the Catholics were given a cheap Rosary during Chapel orientation, and I actually carried it with me throughout the entire training. I don't remember praying it once, but I did carry it.

Following Basic, I went to Keesler AFB in Biloxi, MS, for the technical training for my Air Force job, computer programmer. While I was there, learning a bunch of great stuff about programming computers, I started to wane slightly on Mass attendance. It wasn't as crucial that I be out of the barracks on Sunday morning, and could even start to sleep in on weekends after a couple of weeks. I've always liked my sleep-in time, and I could get away with it a couple of days a week, so Mass suffered. Besides, the base chapel was a pretty good walk from the training dorms, a walk I really didn't want to make too badly on some Sundays, so sometimes I didn't go to Mass.

I completed my technical training more or less without incident on Thanksgiving Day, and flew home to visit my parents before heading off to my first duty station, Scott AFB in southern Illinois. I'd like to say I wanted to go to Mass when I was home visiting because of my desire to receive the Eucharist in my home parish, but mostly I wanted to go in order to show off the uniform. There's not much that'll get more respect in most small towns in America than coming back dressed in a military uniform. Yep, I had earned the uniform, and Mass was the perfect reason to show it off. The priest even welcomed me back at the beginning. Definitely not the most pious and spiritual reason to go, I admit.

Following my short leave, I reported to my unit at Scott, and began to settle into my dorm room. After a couple of weeks, I decided that I should walk over to the chapel and check it out, especially since it was only two or three blocks away. Looking around the vestibule, I found the Catholic section of the pamphlet rack. Much to my surprise, I found out that they have a Knights of Columbus council on base. Taking some of the information in the rack, I thought, “Hey, I know the Knights. My Dad joined them when we moved to Culbertson, and seems to enjoy doing things with them. I'll join the Knights here, and that'll give me something to do on my time off.”

As I continued to look around, I noticed a copy of the Catholic community bulletin sitting on a table. In the back of my mind I figured that if I was going to join a Catholic group, I should at least act like a Catholic by going to Mass once in a while, so I grabbed a bulletin to find out the time for Mass and returned to my dorm.

The next Sunday, I actually got up early, at least for what I had become accustomed to on Sundays, and went to Mass at the Chapel. Mind you, I hadn't been to Confession in at least nine months and missed several Masses just in the few months that I was in the Air Force, but still received Communion at Mass. This is a good example of the spiritual state that I was in at that time, something which embarrasses me to this day. I met the celebrant, Fr. Hilaron, as well as one of the members of the Knight of Columbus council.

In the months following, I actually started to develop a fairly good attendance record at Mass. Fr. Hil, the junior Catholic chaplain who I had met, encouraged me to get involved in the Catholic community, and I helped out at Mass by monitoring and running the sound system from the back of the chapel. I was an electronics geek, and it sounded right up my alley.

The Knights of Columbus on base were no slouches for recruiting, and they quickly made contact with me and invited me to join. Within a year of arriving on base, I had joined the Knights and become active within the council, helping out with many of the activities the Knights were involved with both on and off base. I made it a point not to miss a meeting or activity unless official duties conflicted, which they rarely did.

For about my first couple of years, I maintained a certain status quo. I was somewhat active with the Knights, helping out with most of the activities and attending most meetings. I became a “more Sundays than not” Catholic, meaning I attended Mass more Sundays than I missed. I felt I was doing well, but didn't have a prayer life, and hadn't received the Sacrament of Confession in several years. In short, I was like many Catholics, even those we consider active, throughout the United States.

One day, after a couple of years in the Air Force, I was surfing the Internet, playing with the pre-Google killer search engine Altavista. On a lark, I entered “Catholic” into the search bar, just to see what would turn up. To my surprise, a great number of sites popped up, each containing a lot of information. Now that I know the amount of garbage that is on the Internet today and likely was on it back then, I feel that the Holy Spirit was really guiding me in what happened as part of my search.

One site in particular caught my interest, the Catholic Information Network. I started to first skim, then read, then devour voraciously, the information that was contained in this site. I couldn't believe it, all this is Catholicism? You mean it's more than just Mass once a week? Suddenly, things that I had learned years before in Religious Education came back. The Hail Mary and the Rosary. What the Mass meant. I had pushed all this to the back of my mind, never to be remembered, until I stumbled across this site.

Over the next few months, I had read almost everything on the CIN site, so I found other sites. There was this organization called Catholic Answers that did apologetics work. Lots of great information there. More reading ensued. I became interested in doing apologetics, but was too scared to try attempting to defend the Faith. I didn't know much and realized it.

At some point, I found a link to EWTN's website and began to read through their library as well. I knew who Pope John Paul II was, but I didn't anything about him except that he lived in Rome and I'd seen his picture a bunch of times. Of course, EWTN had a lot of great information on the Pope, so I learned about JP2 and his predecessors. I also learned about Church history, and the Second Vatican Council, and so much more. I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store. Unfortunately, we didn't have EWTN on our cable, so I had to settle for the documents in the library.

I just couldn't get enough information on Catholicism, and at some point along the way, something clicked in my mind. I realized that I needed to either commit myself fully to the Catholic Faith that I had been spending months reading about or just give it up altogether. Half-heartedly attending Mass and not being active in the Faith wasn't going to cut it. This really is the moment of conversion in my life, the point where I took this Catholic faith, which had been passed on to me, and made it my own. For the first time in my life, I took responsibility for living the Faith and continuing to grow in it.

Because of my new-found excitement for the Faith, I became more active in the Catholic chapel. I once again began to Lector at Mass, and recommitted myself to Knight of Columbus activities. I was elected one of the trustees of the council, one of the officer positions within each Knights of Columbus council. I even began to pray on an irregular basis, beginning with devotions like the Rosary, and started to understand that Jesus wasn't just some abstract historical figure. I became aware that He was present and active in my life from the beginning.

At this point, I started to feel a little nudge. You see, I came across a vocations website. I don't even remember what diocese it was with, but it was a site dedicated to discernment of vocations. At the time, I looked at the site, laughed, and moved on. “Yeah, like that's going to happen,” I thought.

Later on, I felt a little tickle in the back of my mind, almost a nagging. I remembered the Confirmation instructor telling me that I was going to be a priest. No, that's not going to happen. Go away. I'm not called to be a priest, others are. I'm going to finish up my enlistment, get a computer job that pays lots of money, find a wife, have a family, live happily ever after.

By this time, I haven't had too much luck with the dating scene. One girlfriend turned out to be trouble. Another girl that I was very interested in turned out to be a devout Mormon who expected to marry another Mormon. That's not happening either. I've read enough Catholic apologetics to know that the Mormon church is bad news. All this is going through my mind, as I'm pushing the thoughts about the priesthood away. After all, I told myself, there's still plenty of time to find the future Mrs. Sticha.

Shortly after my third anniversary in the Air Force, I received some bad news from my supervisor: I'd been chosen to spend five months in sunny Saudi Arabia. The unit needed to find someone to send on a deployment that had UNIX server experience. I had the experience and was getting close to the end of my enlistment, so I was perfect for the assignment. I tried to fight it, coming up with every excuse in the book, but ending up having to go. As I saw it, the only saving grace about this assignment was going during the winter months, when it would be a more comfortable temperature in Saudi in contrast to the cold temperatures in southern Illinois. It was also at a time when there were no active hostilities with Iraq, although we were watching Saddam Hussein very closely.

As part of my preparation for deployment, I had to undertake some training that I never thought I'd face. Because we thought that Saddam Hussein had biological and chemical weapons (and yes, every major country in the world thought that at the time!), I had to go though Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training, also known as the “Chem gear”. I also had to renew my certification on the M-16 rifle, much to my great amusement. The base was well away from any theoretical front lines that might develop, so there wouldn't be a lot of the US military forces left if I had to pick up a rifle and fight.

Training complete, I take a short period of leave and fly off to the sunny deserts of Saudi Arabia. Before I left, I was advised that all religious articles were not allowed to enter the country for any reason. Although I had been praying the Rosary on occasion, my Knights of Columbus Rosary stayed Stateside for fear of things going ill with Saudi customs over it.

I arrived at the deployment base and discovered that the base chapel, a temporary hard tent set up in an empty block, was right across the street from my quarters. The base was a permanent facility built for Bedouin tribes, but later turned over to the Air Force when the Bedouins refused the houses. Each house had five bedrooms and three bathrooms, and everyone had their own rooms. I found it quite interesting that I could look out the window of my room and see the chapel, especially since I had become so interested in the practice of my faith.

Being active in my faith didn't prevent me from missing Christmas Mass. I was still of the mindset that missing Mass once in a while was fine, so I didn't hurry over to the chapel to find the schedule for Masses. I arrived shortly before Christmas, and it wasn't until after New Years' Day that I actually began going to Mass again. I obviously still had a lot to learn about the Faith.

When I did start going, however, I met Fr. Raymond (a.k.a. Fr. Red because of his red hair), the Catholic chaplain who was there on deployment. He had arrived shortly after Christmas, and was deployed there for six months. After a couple of Masses, he asked me to do something that I had never considered: cantor at Mass. Me? Sing in front of people on my own? Are you serious? There was one other person, a Navy Lieutenant who had been cantoring on his own and was willing to train me so that I could sing with him. I agreed, and joined him in leading the music.

As my deployment went on, I began to enjoy the assignment. It was pretty easy work, the weather was nice, at least at the beginning, and I was getting active in the chapel. By the time Easter rolled around, the Navy LT had returned to his permanent assignment and I was cantoring on my own. I also helped Fr. Red set up the chapel for the different celebrations of the Triduum, not to mention attending Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil for the first time in my life.

As I became more active in the chapel, I began to know Fr. Red better. As I began to know Fr. Red, I began to realize that priests are just normal men (well some priests are, anyways). Guess what came back? Yep, that little tickle in the back of my mind. Those memories of the Confirmation instructor came back as well. Once again, I pushed them away and recited my litany of plans for my life. This wouldn't be the last time that I felt that little tickle by any stretch of the imagination.

I finally finished my deployment, and not a moment too soon. It was 102° F when I left Saudi Arabia at the beginning of May. I was eager to get back to the United States and begin the process of finding a job so I could start raking in the big bucks that I knew were out there for me. I was ready to go, ready to put an end to my Air Force career and start my civilian life.

When I got back to the United States, I plugged back in with the Knights of Columbus council on base. Many of them were military retirees who had retired from Scott and decided to stay in the area, so I knew that they would have an idea of which parishes near the base were good. One of them invited me to St. Clare Parish in O'Fallon, about 5 miles away from the base. One Sunday, I decided to attend Mass there instead of at the base chapel. I was blown away. Here was a relatively young community, mostly active military and families or military retirees, with a pastor who didn't look like he was even 40 years old. I knew this was the parish I wanted to belong to. Once again, the Holy Spirit guided me in ways that were far beyond my understanding, as this decision would affect my discernment greatly.

As I was job hunting, and getting the usual uncertainty and flat out rejection that comes with the territory, I started to become unsure of myself. Was I going to find a job. The end of my enlistment was approaching rapidly, and there were no firm commitments coming forward. Once again, God tried to speak to me through that little tickle in the back of my mind, and once again I ignored it. I continued my job hunt, and ended up leaving the Air Force without finding a job, but didn't have to wait too long before one came around.

Continue to Part 3 - Civilian Life

Vocation Story - Introduction

Thanks to the pestering of AdoroTeDevote and others at Plurk, I've decided it's probably time to put my vocation story down on "paper". I've broken the story into 5 pieces, so hopefully each post won't be too long. As I complete and post each section, I'll update this post. So, without further ado, my vocation story.

Part 1 - Culbertson
Part 2 - Air Force
Part 3 - Civilian Life
Part 4 - God's 2x4
Part 5 - Seminary Discernment

Vocation Story part 1 - Culbertson

The temptation when writing a vocation story is to make the story about the author, not about the movement of the Holy Spirit within the author's life. In my life, I can definitely see the Holy Spirit nudging me in the right direction, even as I resisted and tried to go the opposite way.

When discussing my vocation story, I always go back to high school in Culbertson, MT. Culbertson is one of the little towns that dot much of the Great Plains in North America. Big enough to have its own school, but small enough that it's not hard to know everyone in town. We moved into Culbertson right before my Freshman year in high school, and I wasn't happy. We'd moved a lot throughout the years that I grew up, mostly following jobs for my parents. I wasn't looking forward to yet another move, and to a very small town this time.

Despite my misgivings, we did move to the small town of Culbertson. After we had gotten settled into our new home, we went about getting to know this town. We were signed up for school and went to Mass at the small parish of St. Anthony for the first time. I was amazed by the size of the church compared to what I was used to. The church in the previous town could seat 800 people, while St. Anthony's could only hold about 250, and that would be stretching the limits.

Fall came around, and school started. Like many parishes, high school youth group started about the same time as classes started, and I had been signed up for youth group as well. You see, my mom wanted both of us to receive a good Catholic grounding, even if we really didn't practice the Faith at home. Yeah, we said the grace before meals once in a while. Sure, we had a crucifix or two hanging on the walls of the house, but we really didn't talk about how the Faith matters to us. Since it didn't seem to be important to our parents, it wasn't important to me. We went to Mass more Sundays than not, and I was a regular at youth group, but the practice of the Faith ended there. Over the summers, the Sundays we attended Mass became lessened due to the desire to enjoy Summer break, not to mention the all important high school part-time job which frequently meant working on Sundays.

The practice of my faith went like this for about two years until my Junior year in high school. At the time, the procedure in the diocese was to confirm during high school, preferably Junior or Senior year. In our case, the bishop only came around every other year, due to small numbers of confirmandi, and it happened to fall on my Junior year.

As part of the preparation for Confirmation classes, we had a one-on-one meeting with the instructor of the class. During this meeting, she asked me to consider lectoring and teaching Kindergarten and First Grade religious education. I agreed to give it a try, do my part to help out at the church and all that. We were expected to be at Mass every week, so I made sure to attend. It would be impossible to hide the fact that I'd missed, but I still wasn't really committed to the practice of the Faith.

At one point, about half way through the year, she came up to me during a weekend retreat and said the most surprising thing that I had ever heard before: "Cory, I think you're going to be a priest." I was shocked. Me, a priest? Get up there every Sunday, suffer through the Mass willingly? Me? No way, forget it. I'm going to college, get a degree and a job, get married, have a family, and live happily ever after. That's what we do in the US, right? The priesthood is not a part of that picture.

She wasn't satisfied, however. About a month later, a religious sister came to the parish to talk about vocations. During the talk, as the sister was discussing the priesthood, the Confirmation instructor leaned over and said, "You know she's talking about you, don't you?" Once again, I shook my head no. There is no way I'm going to become a priest. Forget it!

As I look back, I can clearly see the work of the Holy Spirit through this woman, who happened to be the mother of one of my classmates. She told me one more time before the year was over that I would become a priest, and again I refused. In a way, I almost see a parallel between her three invitations to the priesthood and St. Peter's denials of Our Lord. Just as he didn't give up on St. Peter, Our Lord didn't give up on me, but continued to work in my soul.

Following my Confirmation, I continued to Lector at the parish on occasion and occasionally be involved with the parish youth group, but I still wasn't committed. The summer following my Junior year, I went on a Christian leadership retreat sponsored by the diocese, but the Faith was still something vague and unimportant to me throughout my Senior year. It was after high school that something in me began to stir, and practice of the Faith became important.

Continue to Part 2 - Air Force

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Homily for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

For the Jews, the Mosaic Law was that law which was given to Moses by God, and was the ultimate arbitrator of how they were to live their lives, both civilly and religiously. By healing the leper, Jesus shows us that he goes beyond the law.

As we see in the first reading, leprosy was one of the reasons by which one could be declared ritually unclean. Being declared unclean not only prevented you from entering into the temple to worship God, but also had consequences that reached into your daily life. Those publicly declared unclean were shunned by family and friends, and in some cases were required to leave the camp or town until you were able to be cleansed of what ever made you unclean.

If you think about it, this makes sense from a medical standpoint. Diseases, such as leprosy, were completely untreatable through normal means at that time. They didn't have the medical knowledge or technology that we have today which enable us to cure many diseases that were nearly always fatal. To prevent the spread of the diseases, the infected person was cast out of the community until death or recovery from the disease, which ever came first. Once the person was healed from the disease, they could undergo a ritual purification which included a sacrifice. They could then be readmitted to their community and family. While they might not have understood everything about how diseases spread, they obviously understood the basic concept of isolation preventing the spread of disease.

Another way to become ritually unclean was either to touch or be touched by someone who was considered unclean. By Our Lord touching the leper, he also would have been considered ritually unclean, and may have suffered the same fate of being cast out of the community. Instead of Jesus receiving the disease from the leper, Our Lord was able to heal the leper, removing the disease and all effects that come from it. Rather than being made ritually unclean by the leper, Our Lord went beyond the Mosaic law by washing the leper clean, both from his disease and from his ritual impurity.

The leper provides for us the example of how to approach Our Lord with humility. All of us have our uncleanliness, our sins that we need to ask for the cleansing of Christ to come upon us and heal us. The leper was willing to come to Our Lord and say to Him, “If you wish, you can make me clean,” and Jesus responded, “I do will it. Be made clean.” We also need to come before the Lord and ask Him to make us clean.

We do this through regular reception of the Sacrament of Confession. How often is regular? At a minimum, we are required every time we know that we have a mortal sin on our soul. These serious sins cut us off from God, a separation that can only be healed through Confession. We are also required by the Church to receive this Sacrament at least once a year, even if we haven't committed a mortal sin in that time.

Of course, once a year is the bare minimum. We are encouraged to receive this Sacrament more frequently. Ideally, we should confess our sins and receive the cleansing of Christ's forgiveness and absolution at least once a month to provide us with the grace to overcome those sins which we seem to repeat over and over again. I frequently call these our “favorite” sins, because we seem to enjoy committing them repeatedly. Even if we only have venial sins on our souls, the graces which come through the Sacrament of Reconciliation will help to cleanse us from our sinfulness.

When we approach the Sacrament and hear the words of absolution, our sins are forgiven and our souls have been cleansed, much as the serious disease of the leper was healed. Like the author of the psalm we heard, God will take away the guilt of our sins, making us truly blessed in His eyes. As the leper did following his healing by Our Lord, we should rejoice in the forgiveness of our sins through the mercy of God and the cleansing of our souls.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Chant Ordinary of the New Translation of the Mass

The very talented musicians behind Musica Sacra, the website of the Church Music Association of America, have taken the recently released new translation of the Mass and set it to the traditional chants. Unfortunately, ICEL has asked them to restrict distribution at this time, but they have come up with an email system that respects ICEL's request while still allowing the chants to be made available. Those interested can visit Musica Sacra's Ordinary page or fill out the form that I've placed above my posts to receive these chants via email in two parts. More information can be found on the Musica Sacra website.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Homily for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some days, we just feel like Job in the first reading. We look at the world around us and feel that life is a drudgery to be endured. Our Lord has come to free us from that drudgery and introduce us to a life of joy.

Every once in a while, I just want to sit down and enjoy a good TV show, and it never fails that I'm unable to find anything worth watching. We have over 60 channels covering everything from home improvement to science to music to movies, and there never seems to be anything I want to watch. Anyone else ever feel like that?

This boredom with things doesn't limit itself to the selection of TV shows. Most Americans have lots of things that they could do with their time. They could work on projects around the house, engage in a hobby they enjoy, do some reading, and so on. With all this available for us, why do we fall into the “there's nothing to do” trap?

Even at work, it becomes a temptation to become bored with our jobs. All of us, whether directly or indirectly, have jobs that impact others around us, whether other employees or directly with those the company serves. Yet, the temptation is to become self-absorbed with the job, and find it dull, monotonous, and boring. Why does that occur?

The answer to all these questions is that we become focused on the things of the world. Life on Earth is not an easy thing. Yes, modern technology and engineering have definitely made things better, but there are still parts of our lives which are difficult to handle. In response, our reaction is often to turn to earthly things to provide the escape from those difficulties. Are you dealing with stress? Engage in sports or a hobby. Have family issues? Spend more time at work to forget about it. When we focus on the things of the world, we often discover that the promise these things hold for us is merely an illusion, and can even make the problem worse.

Jesus came to free us from the things of the world. Focusing our lives on the things of the world will only lead to more sorrow in the long run, but when we focus our lives on Christ, our lives become a joy. It can be subtle, and may take some time, but when we spend our lives in service of Our Lord, even the most monotonous of tasks can become a joy-filled experience.

In the Gospel this morning, Our Lord healed Simon's mother-in-law, who was sick with a fever. At the time when Jesus was performing his earthly ministry, medicine wasn't as advanced as it is today. Someone suffering from a fever was likely to die within a few days, as they had no medication which could take care of the underlying illness. When Our Lord healed Simon's mother-in-law, I can imagine that she reacted with great joy to this miraculous healing. She likely asked Jesus and the Apostles to sit down and allow her to serve them out of joy and gratitude for His gift of healing.

The Gospel also tells us that Jesus healed many who were sick or possessed by demons. Once again, I can't imagine that people would leave the house solemnly and silently, but with great joy. Those who were healed were probably dancing in the streets, shouting and praising God. In fact, St. Mark tells us that the whole town was present, so you could imagine the celebration that was occurring as everyone rejoiced for their neighbors who received the marvelous gift of healing.

This is the joy that we will receive when we serve Our Lord. It won't be as sudden as the miraculous healings we see in the Gospel, but we will still experience it. We will have this joy when we do something small for another person, like holding a door when their hands are full. We will experience great joy when we visit someone who is homebound and doesn't receive many visitors. The joy will come when we listen and pray for those who are at difficult points in their lives, allowing them to express their frustrations and receive consolation and prayer.

It is easy to fall into the temptation of focusing on worldly things and viewing life as a drudgery to endure. If we focus on serving Our Lord, we will rise above that temptation and drudgery, and experience the joys that come with the simple things we do every day.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Our Lord walked a different path than all other religious leaders of His time. His teachings and actions amazed all who encountered Him, as He lived a life that was unlike anything that they had seen before. He lived a life that was contrary to the expectations of the world, and He calls us to do the same.

For the religious teachers in Jesus' time, much of their teaching came from the traditions that had been handed down from generation to generation. Instead of presenting his understanding of what a particular passage in the Scriptures means, a religious teacher would invoke those teachers who had taught before, much like we might quote the Saints or Church Fathers. These teachers would not teach of their own authority, as they felt that they had none other than to pass on the teachings that were entrusted to them.

When Our Lord would stand up in the synagogues to teach, he wouldn't begin by quoting other rabbis, but would invoke his own authority to explain the Scriptures. This would have caused a great shock to all those who were listening, and He did create no small amount of controversy from His teachings. His teachings appeared to be so completely different, even contradictory, to the teachings of those who came before, and this fed the controversy even more.

For many in Judaism, the last teacher who was able to teach with his own authority was Moses, and even that came through the authority of God the Father. As we heard in the first reading, Moses was given the promise that there would be a prophet who would like him, and would have the words of God in his mouth. While it was probably not the way Moses expected, Jesus was the fulfillment of this promise. Because Jesus was able to teach with the Word of God instead of the words of men, He was able to teach on his own authority. This was completely radical to the people of Jesus' time, causing great amazement and controversy.

The controversy didn't end with Jesus' teachings, however. Jesus also had the power to rebuke demons, forcing them to be silent and even leave the person they had possessed. Again, this would have been completely different from the authority provided to any of the other religious teachers of His time. It caused great amazement to those who followed Him, and enraged those who were opposed to Him.

By looking at the radicality of Jesus' teachings and actions, we see that the unclean spirit in today's Gospel was right about two things. First, it was right that Jesus is the Holy One of God, code language for the Messiah and Son of God. Second, it was right that Jesus came to destroy them and their effects on this world. Since the Fall of Adam and Eve, Satan and his demons have had run of the world, but now Our Lord has come to cut off their free reign. Instead of allowing us to wander blindly through this world of sin, Jesus has shown us a new path out of sin and into the joy of eternal life. In short, all the teachings and actions of Christ, so different from what had come before, served to show us a different path through the world: the Gospel.

Although Our Lord has come to overcome the effects of sin in our lives, it's still very easy for us to fall of the path that He has shown us. This is why St. Paul says that he “should like [us] to be free of anxieties.” When we are anxious for the things of the world, we lose our focus on the Gospel and instead concentrate on those things that make us anxious. At that point, it becomes easy to slide off the path of the Gospel and instead return to the ways of the world. St. Paul tells us that we need to have “adherence to the Lord without distraction,” and it becomes very difficult to worry about worldly affairs and remain undistractedly focused on Our Lord. This doesn't mean that we totally remove ourselves from the world, but must not allow the things of the world to make us anxious.

Jesus has shown us another way of living our lives. May be willing to follow that path without anxiety for the world.