Is It Tough To Preach There?

Giving a lecture on Laudato Si in the church to a mixed audience

Giving a lecture on Laudato Si in the church to a mixed audience

If time flies when you’re having fun, it seems to break the sound barrier when you’re busy living out your life’s calling. After eight weeks that I will forever remember at our parish in Triangle, VA, I find myself back at Holy Name College in Silver Spring, MD wondering what just happened. Part of me is in denial. I only started packing to leave an hour before I left, and didn’t even hint at saying goodbye to any of the parish staff until I was packed and ready to go. I sit here in my room half expecting to head back in a few days, but that is not the case. I do not know if or when I will return, but I do know that it has been (dare I be so bold…) my favorite period of being a friar thus far.

For some, this might be surprising given the reputation of the parish. The parish does not have a bad reputation by any means, but before I visited and ultimately decided on it, there seemed to be an obligatory question friars asked when mentioning the parish: “Is it tough to preach there?” What they meant by this was that the influence of the government and military (the marine base at Quantico is just .4 miles away and the parish is the home of many Pentagon and intelligence workers) was perceived to be a detriment to preaching freely about some difficult topics. How could one engage in works of social justice, challenge the culture of war and gun violence, and speak freely about the social ills of the country if everyone there was either a gun-toting conservative or a high-powered government agent that would be keeping tabs on anything controversial (not that either of these things is bad, I should note)? That was the perception I had of Triangle after three years in the Order, having visited the parish only once.

Having now spent eight weeks there and leaving with actual experience preaching, do you want to know my answer? No, yes, and it’s a flawed question. Let me explain.

For starters, the very reasons that some have cited as potentially off-putting are the very reasons that make it an incredible place to work and preach. Because let’s be honest: if you are interested in social justice and actually want to get things done, wouldn’t you want people in the pews who can make a serious difference in their work, say… FBI agents, people who protect and interact with the president on a regular basis, and oh, you know, generals in the armed forces. Sitting in their pews each week are the people that have the power to make incredibly influential decisions on behalf of our country, and are entrusted with the task of forming many young men and women entering these jobs. Rather than reading the New York Times op ed piece and forming an opinion, the people of this parish can go and speak to an actual person working in the Pentagon or investigating an issue on the ground and have a real conversation. This is an incredible resource. Is it tough to preach here? No. Quite the opposite: it’s better informed and more exciting.

On the other hand, having these resources there do require a bit more work in preaching. Our preaching has to be done in a smart way. Unlike “easier” situations for preaching, congregations that are largely similar and everything we say is like “preaching to the choir,” one cannot get away with saying lazy answers or half-truths when those listening are well-informed and diverse. If everyone is conservative in the parish, you could get away with preaching about how there are abuses to the welfare system and the best way to help the poor is to make them “help themselves.” Popular, but not the Gospel. If everyone in the parish is liberal, you could get away with preaching that the entire reason people are poor is because of corporate greed and the top 1% of wealth-owners. Popular, but also not the Gospel. When a parish has the parishioners that St. Francis does, knowledgable and well-connected, and given the issues many have had with their previous churches, overwhelmingly diverse when it comes to the conservative/liberal scale, it can only be successful if it preaches carefully and invites all to the table.

I saw this first hand working with the Care of Creation Committee on Pope Francis’ Laudato Si and the Economics Committee on wealth inequality. Both issues are very controversial. Both have the possibility of alienating parishioners. And yet arch-conservatives and flaming liberals (and of course, us normal people in between!) were able to come together, challenge one another, and not leave the conversation by flipping the table and storming off. Why? Because the conversation was incredibly intelligent, and more importantly, involved people that knew that the real answer had to include everyone. Is this a difficult environment to preach in? You bet.

As a result, though, St. Francis is the most successful parish I know of in actually making a difference in social justice issues. How successful? While many churches have a food pantry and outreach program, which St. Francis does, it also has seven different Action and Advocacy groups. The Anti-Human Trafficking group, for instance, is so well-organized and ahead of the curve that two representatives of the parish were asked to present on effectively organizing a parish-run social action group at the Anti-Humam Trafficking conference organized by the United State Conference of Catholic Bishops a few weeks ago. That’s no small potatoes! It is a certified Green Faith parish, an active community organizer through the Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement (V.O.I.C.E.) organization, a major supporter of respect for life issues (a committee that includes but goes beyond abortion in its defense of the dignity of human life), and… well, you’re probably tired of me shamelessly selling this parish by now. But you get the point: it is a successful parish.

So, is it tough to preach there? No, yes, and ultimately, it’s a faulty question. Because, really, shouldn’t it always be tough to preach somewhere? The Gospel is not easy to follow. It’s challenging. If it seems easy to preach and everyone agrees with what we’ve said, well then maybe we haven’t preached well. If we have picked a side and given people what they want, haven’t we also failed to be bridge-builders to those on the other side? Maybe we haven’t challenged our congregations, or maybe we haven’t challenged ourselves. At St. Francis, one can understand the apprehension to preach and its reputation, given the congregation. For me, though, that’s what all preaching should be, and I loved the opportunity to take part and the excitement of knowing that, if the Lord chose to work through me, and if I took the time to actually listen, I could effect change in the world in a way not possible other places. For me, that’s a tough situation, but not for the reasons some might thinks.

Discernment, Formation, and the Church in the Modern World

If you think that title is long, wait until you see the video! But before I get to that, I have great news! Our brother in Syria, Fr. Dhiya Azziz, OFM was released unharmed by his kidnappers! Praise be to God! Thank you all so much for your thoughts and prayers throughout this past week. 

And with news like that, where do I go from here? Well I can assure you that I can’t beat it. And since you’re going to be disappointed anyway… let’s talk about this video that I have for you. You see, it started off with the best intentions. I planned to film a two part series: one on my discernment process, the other on the formation process of becoming a friar. I worked out the script, had lots of pictures, filmed it three times… and realized it was incredibly boring and useless. What I also realized was that, in between takes, the conversations Rob and I were having were really lively and really interesting. So we filmed that.

And here’s the thing. I think it’s the best video yet. The conversation was candid and lively, the questions were honest and off-the-cuff, and the answers surprised even me. When we went back to see what we had, we couldn’t find a place to cut or edit… and so we didn’t. What I have before you is a forty minute video. That’s right. 4-0. But do you know what? That’s shorter than one episode of Law and Order, and certainly shorter than a football game, so I don’t feel bad at all! Enjoy it at your own leisure, either all at once or in little bites, or don’t enjoy it at all! That’s up to you! All I’ll say is that I am really pleased at how it came out: for the first time, I really think you get to see a bit of my personality and passion for this life come out in a way that blog posts and scripted video reflections can’t capture. For that alone, I stand by it and hope you will to.

For those on email, you can click here to view.

Also, if you’re interested in more about my vocation story, you can click here to read a shortened version, or here to see other related posts. There are also quite a few about the formation process, which can be found here.



Coming Up For Air: What Does Time Off Mean as a Friar?

I’ve been here at my summer assignment in Triangle, VA for about a month now, and what a summer it’s been so far! Apparently, when I first met with the parish staff back in early May, I said the words, “I don’t want to be bored this summer” four different times. The parish has been happy to oblige my request!

So besides making videos and being a rockstar at an elementary school, the only two things I’ve shared thus far, what else am I doing to stay busy? Let’s see…

  • Twice a week I teach a class for an hour an a half. The first class is “How to Read the Bible,” a class I taught last summer in Camden but have almost completely rebooted given the amount I learned in seminary this past year. It is not a Bible “study” in the sense that we are not focusing on specific passages but rather a class to give people the tools to understand how Catholics approach the text with regard to its genre, historical significance, place in salvation history, and life of prayer. The second class, a completely new idea for me, is called “Catholic Bootcamp.” Over seven weeks, I hope to cover “all” of Catholicism in a sort of remedial RCIA framework that really challenges even the most faithful Catholics. So far we’ve covered Scripture, history, and theology, and will finish with moral theology, social teaching, and worship. It’s a bit ambitious, to say the least, and I am learning a lot about myself (and my own faith) in the process.
  • Twice now I have preached, alternating weekends, and will plan to do that two more times this summer.
  • With the help of the director of religious education, I’m organizing a summer young adult group (ages 18-25) that meets once a week. So far it’s been casual, focusing almost exclusively on building community. We’ve played ultimate frisbee, had a cookout, and tonight, we’ll be watching Wall-E in the gym. I’m amazed at how the group, which otherwise had never met one another, has been so enthusiastic about organizing these events and how well they’ve gotten along with one another. A separate post is sure to follow.
  • One of the big reasons I chose St. Francis in Triangle for my summer assignment was the Franciscan Action and Advocacy group. Among the most active social justice parishes in the province (if not the most active given the amount it has done to effect actual legislation), I’ve had a good opportunity to learn from the director and see how much a parish is capable of. Although the summer is a bit slow, I’ve sat in on meetings for two different groups, plan to attend the USCCB’s Anti-Human Trafficking Conference next week (for which the parish’s director will be a key speaker on a panel) and in a few weeks, will lead a discussion on Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the care of our common home.
  • Miscellaneous tasks include giving the announcements and greeting parishioners at all of the masses, serving at a Eucharistic minister, cooking dinner a few times per week in the house, attending staff meetings, volunteering once a week at the parish-run food pantry, meeting with parishioners on request, and periodically attending weddings, baptisms, or special events at the parish for the experience.

I mention all of these things, not to brag about all I’m doing (I mean, it’s a lot of work, but come on… I know so many people reading this post work so much harder than I do!) but to set up what this reflection is really about: how much should a friar “work”?

Here’s the issue: as a professed religious, we are called to serve the Church in one capacity or another. Because this is the life we live and not a job we fulfill, the idea of being “off” and “on” is not quite as clear as it is for someone who works a 9-5 job and clocks out at the end of the day. Being at a parish, and being someone who wants to work as hard as possible, I’ve found that there are things that can fill every minute of the day if I let them. (There have been more than a few days this summer that I have focused on ministry, in one way or another, from 9am until 10pm.)

At the one extreme, this can be suffocating and deadly. If a friar overextends himself, constantly giving what he has not replenished through prayer, or if he separates the external ministry from what is essential to the charism, namely minority and fraternity, such work will eventually lose purpose and the friar will burnout. This is not good, and as a result, there are many friars that are very sensitive to the amount of work we do, calling others to learn to say no more often, to work less and spend more time in fraternity.

At the other extreme, an extreme I find equally as deadly, is to put so much emphasis on “self-care” and fraternity that barely any ministry gets done. The irony of this situation, constantly focused on avoiding the burnout of work, can actually lead to a burnout of a different kind: isolated and inward-looking, this friar runs the risk of falling into a rut, losing passion, and becoming numb to the comforts around him. This is obviously not good either, and as a result, there are many friars that a very sensitive to the amount of time they take off and call others to spend less time in the friary and more time in the world.

Obviously, the amount of work that one does is going to be based on that person’s ability and we can’t expect more from a friar than he is able to give or judge him for how much or little he works. What I can say, though, is that there can be a healthier, more balanced approach to work for friars (including myself!) Here are just a few reflections at the moment:

  • We can’t give what we don’t have. If we spend little or no time in prayer, do not interact with the brothers enough to let them know we love them (and let them do the same for us!), and are so busy that we lose touch with the outside world, we will eventually have nothing to give no matter how many hours we work.
  • We are a “fraternity in mission,” not a “fraternity and mission”; these two aspects of our life should not be compartmentalized. For those who complain about “workaholic” friars, we need to remember that working together is a vital part of fraternity; for those who complain about “lazy” friars, we need to remember that recreating is a vital part of our mission.
  • Our work is not like other people’s work: while others work to make a living, we live to work for others. Yes, some days are incredibly difficult, depressing, and downright deflating. And yet, everyone needs time off, including vacations, to recharge. But work for us is who we are. Francis made it very clear in his writings that we are to work before we beg, that work (particularly manual work) is essential to be a Franciscan. It’s my hope for all friars, and what is driving me this summer, that we be so overjoyed with the Gospel that we would want to fill every moment of our day living and sharing it, not counting it as “work” to be completed so we can go on vacation or have some “real fun” but something we can’t get enough of.
  • Finally, I need to remember that people in the “real world” work just as hard, but also have to take care of kids, spend time with their spouse and worry about paying bills, without not having the amazing support that we have from our parishes and donors.

My summer here in Triangle is more than halfway over and I’m truly devastated by that fact. I have loved every minute of the work I’m doing here and would do even more if there was more time in a day. And it’s because of that, it is because I love doing what I’m doing so much and want to be able to do so for the rest of my time here, that I’m taking almost the entire day off: relax in my room, grab some lunch in town, play a round of golf, and come back for prayer and dinner with the friars. I know that I could be reading Laudato Si, planning class tomorrow, or taking care of any number of people at the parish today. And a part of me feels really guilty about not doing these things today. But part of my formation as a friar is learning to pace myself, that I want to sprint when it’s really a marathon, that all I want to do is to continue diving deeper, but I can’t do that without coming up for some air every once in a while.

A Look At Where We’ve Been

Before we hit the open road, it's time to look back at where we've been

Before we hit the open road, it’s time to look back at where we’ve been

Over the past few weeks much of my focus has been on where I’m going. I’m going to Triangle, VA for my summer assignment. I’m going on a road trip across the country. I may or may not be going somewhere outside of the country at the end of the summer… My focus has been almost exclusively on the future, on things that will or may happen.

Before all that happens, though, I need to take some time to focus on what has actually happened throughout this year. That’s right, it’s time for the annual “Retreat to Move Forward” (kudos to anyone who gets the reference). Starting this afternoon and going until Thursday, the temporary professed friars of Holy Name college will be resting, praying, and reflecting together at the Bon Secours Retreat and Conference Center in Marriotsville, MD.

A vehicle for completing our year end self-evaluations, the retreat will be self-directed and focus on six categories: Life with God, Fraternal Life, The Vowed Life, Personal Growth and Self-Understanding, Work, and Vision. Each morning/afternoon, we will be given roughly two hours to privately pray, reflect, and answer a series of questions related to each category. (For example, how and in what ways have you contributed to the fraternal life of the friary?) After enough time has been given, because so much of our life as Franciscans is fraternal, we will then come together to reflect as a group. This serves two important purposes: 1) For the extroverts especially, it is good to process one’s thoughts out loud and to hear affirmation or feedback from the ones who know us best, and 2) our identity is more than just individual and so time needs to be given to reflect on how we have lived up to this life together, not just how have by myself. How have we as a whole house fostered a life-giving fraternity? Supported one another in our vows? Progressed in the way we treat one another? As much as personal growth is important, when one plans on living the rest of his life together with others, communal growth has to be equally evaluated. While I foresee the possibility of these conversations being a bit tedious, even contentious, I think coming together to reflect as one is arguably the most important part of this retreat and our life together.

A Bible, breviary, and a few spiritual books are all I'm taking.

A Bible, breviary, and a few spiritual books are all I’m taking.

What’s also significant about this retreat is that it is a point of transition: last year is over, summer is about to begin. When our time is complete on Thursday, we will drive back to Holy Name college and go our separate ways. Some will go to summer assignment right away; a few will take a few days of vacation; I will be on my way to California. But it’s more than just a transition for summer plans. Because our house is highly transient, many of the guys will be transitioning to the next stage of their formation and will not return in the fall. This year, Ramon, George, and John will all be heading out for a year internship in the province with John being the only planning to return for more school. In this very real way, then, this retreat marks the end of our lives together, at least in this context. The fraternity that we knew this year is coming to an end and a new one will have to be built in the fall with the arrival of a new class. This is of course bittersweet, and my hope is that we may take joy in the time we have with one another this week.

Overall, I’m really looking forward to the week. I could really use some time to put away the computer, turn off the phone, and spend quality (QUIET!) time with my God and my brothers. So much of our lives is spent looking to what may or may not happen that we miss what has and is happening right now. It may seem obvious, but there is no future without the present, and there is no use planning what is ahead if we’ve forgotten where we’ve been.

If you have any prayer requests send them to me before 3:00 today and you will be in my prayers all week.

Now What?

I look forward to spending eight weeks this summer at St. Francis Church in Triangle, VA.

I look forward to spending eight weeks this summer at St. Francis Parish in Triangle, VA.

The year just keeps on moving! After yet another year of studies, I find myself done with exams, finishing up my self-evaluations, and heading to retreat with a simple question: Now What?

For eight weeks this summer, I have been assigned to St. Francis Parish in Triangle, VA. Walking distance from the Quantico Marine Corps base and just off of I-95, St. Francis mixes a large amount of military and government workers with people from far out of town, easily traveling a great distance to be with the friars. These two factors mean that its 2,000 families are diverse in culture and background, coming from all over the country and constantly changing.

Don’t think that the transient nature of the parish means that it is anything less than lively; quite the opposite, actually. As one parishioner said, “We don’t know how long we’ll be stationed here so we can’t afford to take our time. We need to jump right in and take part in our community.” As a result, there is always something going on at either the church or school with new people, ranging from award-winning justice and peace advocacy to a growing youth ministry to innovative pastoral training programs like Stephen Ministry, a program that “equips and empowers lay caregivers to provide high-quality, confidential, Christ-centered care to people who are hurting.”

If that’s not enough, the parish is young and energetic, absolutely teeming with families. When I arrived Saturday for a visit, they had already had two First Holy Communion masses and had one more to go to fit the 150 children in the program. Yeah, that that’s a lot of kids and a lot of young families. Everywhere I looked in its seven, packed Sunday masses were growing families, and they seemed excited to be there.

Needless to say, I’m excited to be there as well, and couldn’t be coming at a better time. After completing a comprehensive parish-wide survey to assess the needs and strengths of the parish, they recently launched a “Now What?” campaign to reengergize the faithful out of complacency and into the world. The first phase, Seek, challenged parishioners to identify their gifts, to articulate their understanding of God, and to determine what was holding them back from taking the next step in their faith journey. The second phase, started during Lent and continuing throughout the time I will be there, is called Discover: “we will ‘Discover’ ways to respond to our NOW WHAT? question through homilies, a parish mission, ministry showcases, a bulletin column, our website, and social media, among other things.” New initiatives are being started, old habits are being questioned, and everyone is being challenged to discover something new about the Church.

So what does that mean for me? Well, after meeting with the pastor and lay pastoral associate, it looks like I’ll be pretty busy! Teaching will be a strong component, as last summer, but I’ll be adding a new course to the “How Do Catholics Read the Bible?” course I taught in Camden. Entitled, “Catholic Bootcamp,” my goal is to teach an “everything you always should have known about Catholicism but were afraid to ask” class, covering the basics of the Bible, Catholic theology, liturgy and sacraments, spirituality and prayer, history, and social teaching in six weeks. Ambitious? You bet! But our tradition has really failed over the years to evangelize and catechize our own people, and many adults honestly don’t know their faith. I see it as a major calling of mine to make the Catholic faith an interesting, engaging experience for everyone. The message is great, but the delivery needs some work for sure!

So that accounts for about three hours of my week plus preparation… what about the rest of the summer? Add to that visiting the students at the elementary school, helping run a vacation Bible school after that, volunteering at the food pantry, setting up a college/young adult ministry, helping to build the already thriving youth ministry (and hopefully going to Kings Dominion!), lectoring, preaching and celebrating communion services when the priests are called away, and working with a creative and hard-working Coordinator of Franciscan Action and Advocacy. And that’s just what we discussed in an thirty minute meeting this morning! I also hope to get a Spanish tutor a few days a week, meet with the marriage preparation team (and maybe even set up some post-Cana formation activities), visit our shut-ins on a regular basis, and if there is any spare time, to sit and just read a book for leisure! Not sure about that last one…

Overall, I couldn’t have had a better weekend in Triangle and couldn’t be more excited about the prospect of things to come. Besides the incredible ministry all around me, the two friars I’ll be living with are great guys, the house is comfortable, and there is a gym and cheap golf course just around the corner of the parish. I guess all I can say is that the answer to “What Now?” is “an awesome summer that I can’t wait to begin.”

And while here would have been a great place to end this post, having given a summary statement and used the title of the blog in a way to bring everything full circle, I continue to type. That’s because the answer to the question at hand has actually nothing to do with parish ministry and everything to do with what I’ll be doing before I head out. You see, what I’m going to do in eleven days is so interesting and exciting that you’ll be asking yourself, with envy and maybe confusion, the entire time I’m doing it, “What Now?!” But not right now. No, what is bound to be the biggest announcement yet on this blog, an opportunity that was inspired by Life From a Suitcase and was hinted at in Spring Break!, will be revealed Friday. It will be unlike anything I’ve done so far as a friar, and yet just a small-scale practice for what I have planned for six years from now. Interested? Excited? Scared? All will be revealed soon enough. You won’t want to miss this one, and you’ll definitely want to be around for all posts (and videos) that follow that week. See you Friday…!