School’s Out!

No more papers! No more tests!

No more papers! No more tests!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Advent? No. Christmas? That’s not for a while. No, the most wonderful time I speak of is the close of the school semester. No more papers! No more tests! That’s right, as of 3:30 yesterday, after three exams in one day, I am officially free from any academic responsibility until January 12. Let’s just say that I’m as excited as this dog going to the park.

So what will I do with all this time, you ask? You mean after I purge my room of all that has collected over the past weeks (assorted papers, stacks of books, trash, and laundry on the floor) and turn it back into a bedroom? Well, let’s see:

From now until the day after Christmas, the students at Holy Name College are free (within reason) to do what they need to do. In my case, the first thing I need to do is catch up on a few neglected chores e.g. cleaning the bathroom, and sort out some other things in the house. After that, and for the next few days, I’ll spend my time relaxing, exercising, writing, and catching up with friends. It’s been a long term and my brain definitely needs a few days to cool down! The nice thing is that my ministry, teaching English as a second language, will also end for the year tomorrow evening, so there is not much to worry about in that respect either. The house has a few things planned for the end of the year, including a day of recollection this Saturday and a tree decorating party the following Friday, but outside of that, there is very little going on.

For some, this is a time of complete vegetation: curl up on the couch with hot chocolate and a book, watch lots of movies, and enjoy the freedom of no responsibility. This is what I gloried in last Christmas when the first semester served to be much more difficult that I had anticipated. Others use the time for doing all of the fun things they’re unable to do while in school: see the sites, catch a show, and explore the metropolitan area. This has never been my first inclination, but I like to be dragged to things… sometimes. Still others, like myself and one other this year, will be traveling up to Mt. Irenaeus for a week of prayer and reflection at the friars’ retreat house. I cannot tell you how excited I am for the absolute peace and quite of being in the middle of the woods, 35 minutes away from the closest “city” (by which I mean Olean, NY, population 15,000). I have never experienced quiet like I have there. This time of year, I can only hope for not too much snow and clear skies for hiking and star-gazing. Either way, I think it will be a perfect way to end the semester and prepare me for Christmas.

After that, and after the house celebrates Christmas together, it’s vacation time. Come sunrise on December 26th, I imagine there will be a race to the parking lot as everyone rushes home for a week away. I will once again be heading back to North Carolina to spend time with family for a few days, followed by New Year’s in mountains where a group of college friends have rented a house. It should be a fun break from the regular schedule for sure! We return January 3rd for a short regroup, and then everyone in formation, except for the novices in Wisconsin, will meet for a week of lectures and fraternity in Pennsylvania.

All in all, there is a lot of time for relaxing, reflecting, and most important to you, writing! There have been a few topics rattling around in my head the last couple of weeks and I hope to get them out in this time.

With that said, I wanted to try something new during this break: ask the readers. Apparently the host site for this blog has a “poll” feature for readers to share their opinions. So what the heck! Let’s give it a try. Below, you’ll see two very simple questions: 1) What do you want to read? and 2) What has been your favorite post? For the first, I’ve tried to give suggestions, but please feel free to fill in “other” with something more specific; you may pick up to three choices. For the second, simply write the name (or topic) of the post you liked most. I just want to say that I really appreciate all of you who read this blog regularly and would love to hear your honest feedback. If you would like more space, there is always the comment section. Peace to all!

Thanksgiving: The Calm Before the Storm

Not a bad way to study!

Not a bad way to study!

Thanksgiving break is a wonderful part of the academic calendar. For five long days, students across the country are given time off from classes to visit family, enjoy a celebratory meal, watch football, and just relax. Oh, and catchup on all the assignments that were skipped when too busy earlier in the term. And write papers. And let’s not forget about studying for finals that are less than two weeks away.

The truth is, Thanksgiving break is a unique blend of extreme vegetation and intense productivity. On the one hand, the term is almost over and we need a break. Unlike the diocesan seminarians and lay students that go home for holidays, religious communities tend to stay together and celebrate within their fraternities. This means that there is no stress in packing, traveling, or sleeping on a couch in a house not your own. Community life continues, but prayers are pushed back to allow people extra time to sleep in, the daily grind slows as ministries and classes take some time off, and guys are a little more willing to spend the day playing a game, watching a movie, or just relaxing in the rec-room with a beer. It is a very relaxing time. On the other hand, the term is almost over and we have already taken too many breaks! Two weeks from today, I will [hopefully] have handed in two papers, taken three tests, passed one oral exam, and given one reflection. For that to happen, I have to catch up on the many articles and books that I have not read sufficiently enough (or at all), study the stuff I have, and pray that I learned something by the end. It is a very stressful time.

Taken together, Thanksgiving break is the “calm before the storm.” It’s a time of catching up and looking forward. Sure we have a lot due in the next two weeks, but we have five days free right now to get a lot of it done, and to have some fun in the meantime. So how am I spending it right now? With a study guide in front of the fire on a cold rainy/snowy day. Pretty good to me! I’m looking forward to a great meal and fellowship with my brothers tomorrow, and taking my time getting this work done all weekend.

I want to conclude by saying that I am thankful for all of you who read this blog, all who keep me in your daily prayers, and all who have been instrumental in my vocational journey. You have been a blessing to me over these past three years. May you have a blessed Thanksgiving, and remember, it is ultimately God who deserves all of our thanks and praise!

Cardinal Differences

While these two men are unquestionably Catholic, they have very different visions for the life of the Church

While these two men have very different visions for the life of the Church, they are unquestionably Catholic

It was quite a remarkable week at the Catholic University of America. In what we were told was “completely coincidental,” two different (and I mean different) Cardinals found their way onto campus to give lectures about the Church. On Monday, Gerhard Cardinal Müller, the prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), gave a lecture to the public, and on Tuesday prayed evening prayer and gave a lecture before a private audience of seminarians. On Thursday, Walter Cardinal Kasper received a medal for “Excellence in Scholarship and Leadership in Religious Studies” from the Catholic University of America and gave a lecture entitled, “Theological Background of the Ecclesiological Ecumenical Vision of Pope Francis.”

For those not up on the latest gossip–I mean news–within the Vatican regarding the Synod on the Family, this is quite a coupling of Cardinals to have speak in one week. Both men have been the center of attention of media personnel, and many have caricatured these men against one another as theological and political enemies, one being the progressive in favor of doctrinal change, the other the conservative defending the faith against heresy. While there is some truth to this, as they appear to have taken different stances on a couple of key issues, it seems to me to be a gross oversimplification of the issues and an attempt to create schism where no schism exists. These men hold different points of view regarding the life of the Church, sure, but they are also very Catholic in doing so.

Of the two, Müller’s was certainly the drier of the lectures. Being the prefect of the CDF, one did not expect him to present anything revolutionary or controversial. Added to that, language was definitely a barrier, meaning that his entire lecture and even much of the question-and-answer session, was read from prewritten statements. As far as presentation goes, I have to admit, I struggled to stay awake.

At the same time, though, it was a really worthwhile experience. Attended by and geared toward seminarians alone, the whole evening was a pretty inspiring event. While the Franciscans (OFM) and the Dominicans appeared to be the only religious in attendance (ahem… Carmelites, Capuchins, TORs, Conventuals, Paulists…), there were hundreds of seminarians in attendance, all students at CUA. That was pretty amazing to see. Vocations to religious life and the priesthood are by no means where they need to be, but it’s clear that there has been a small resurgence in numbers over the past five to ten years. Müller took notice of this, but seemed to indicate that quality is more important than quantity. Encouraging us to embrace the process of growth and conversion, he told us that seminary and formation were not simply, “I believe ze English term is ‘hoops to jump troo.'” We must always ground ourselves in faith, and recognize our journey in the life of the Eucharistic celebration. With the mass as our foundation, seminary and formation is not the step before we get to where we’re going, but rather the experience of Christ right now on our journey of faith.

As an added “bonus” to the night, Cardinal Müller shook each of our hands, took a group picture, and invited us to tour the Saint John Paul II exhibit recently opened. (More about this experience at the end.)

But as worthwhile as our evening with Cardinal Müller was, it pales in comparison to Cardinal Kasper’s lecture. Let’s just say that the man was candid, casual, and full of joy with the current pope. Francis, he said, is Jesuit to the core (not a Franciscan in disguise.) Unlike his predecessor who exercised faith from the standpoint of his intellect and theory, Francis’ faith is rooted in experience and defined by practical measures. Distinctly South American, he exemplifies a method of theology found in the liberation theologians: see, judge, act. Unlike the liberation theologians, however, the Gospel is not primarily a message of liberation, but rather joy, and joy cannot be contained. It is God’s mercy that defines the Gospel, not law. As such, social justice is not some far off ideal we seek, but rather “the minimum amount of mercy” required by all. The Gospel requires more than just the minimum, more than just “what is due.” It requires mercy.

Through this lens, he described, Francis’ understanding of the Church is straight out of the Second Vatican Council, even if he never mentions it. “He doesn’t mention Vatican II a lot. The reason for this is not that he doesn’t agree with it, it’s that that he has embodied it so completely in himself.” For Francis, the Church should not be like a business in which the CEO dictates the mission and the heads of each department work towards pleasing the boss, guided by strict laws and protocols; the Church is not a top-down institution with the pope as the sole source and authority of truth, dictating doctrine for everyone to follow. The Church is the people of God, the messianic people, the sensus fidei, and he wants full participation from everyone, particularly the laity. Just as the outwardly written “doctrines” are secondary to the inward gifts of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel, the Magisterium is there, not to impose burdens on the people, but to listen to and serve the people of God. When the Church becomes self-centered, failing to move to the peripheries of society and Church out of fear, the joy of the Gospel does not get communicated. (I’ve intended to write a post about Francis, and maybe I’ll get there, but can I just go on record to say that I love this guy?)

It’s here, I guess, that the reflective piece of this post begins, and the true purpose of writing comes out. Having listened to two Cardinals with very different tones this week, and having spent a lot of time in conversation about the differences between the papacies of John Paul II and Francis, (not to mention the fact that there were two people protesting outside of one of the lectures!) I cannot help but recognize that each of these men is truly Catholic in his theology and understanding of Church, even if I prefer one over another. I think Cardinal Kasper’s very candid opening line of his lecture expresses what I want to say: “For some of you, the papacy of Francis is a spring of new life, a great warmth after a winter that has lasted for many years; for others of you, it is an unwelcome cold spell that has caused you to grab your coat and pray for a short winter.” This is not a new phenomenon, nor does it indicate that we are headed towards schism. To have a different perspective on Church, and thus, to be disappointed with the Church’s leadership at a given time, does not make someone a good or bad Catholic. As I walked around the John Paul II exhibit, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the many wonderful things he did and the great man of prayer that he always was; at the same time, I couldn’t help but remember that his understanding of Church and style of leadership were far from my own, and that he did a lot to undo the reforms put in place by the Second Vatican Council that really define my own theology. And that’s okay.

You see, we live in a pluralistic world, and like it or not, worship in a pluralistic Church. Having now taken classes in Church history, history of theology, history of the sacraments, foundations of moral theology, and social ethics, it’s clear to me that there has never been time in which everyone in the Church believed and acted the same way, even among the greatest of theologians. (Look at Saint Bonaventure and Saint Thomas Aquinas: contemporaries and doctors of the Church, they represent a Church moving in opposing directions. Look at East and West: truly faithful people that agree on every important dogmatic statement (minus one word that we added later…), both drawing their lineage all the way back to Jesus, and yet are very different in thought and practice.) While the experience of God’s revelation in Christ is unchanging, the way we understand that revelation and live it out develops over time. Just because we may have different opinions about theology and Church organization does not mean that one is right and one is wrong, it simply means, as Kasper said, “The totality of God cannot fit into one human perspective.” Instead of calling for Schism or name-calling among the people of faith, instead of a theology of arrogance that claims to know all that there is about the infinite, let us treat one another with humility of heart and joy for the Gospel, and do as St. Paul tells us: “Test everything; retain what is good.”

Back To School

Three days ago, this desk was immaculate!

Three days ago, this desk was immaculate!

After more than three months of successfully (and futilely) avoiding all school-related activities, the fall session has finally caught up to me. Where has all the summer gone?! Like death and taxes, I guess you could say that it is just one of those inevitabilities for a seminarian.

With the new year comes an entirely new experience. Whereas last year I spent countless hours studying philosophy, this year I will spend countless hours studying theology (a major improvement). On Monday I officially started my degree for ordination, the Master of Divinity (M.Div.) In the next four and a half years, I plan to complete 103 credits of Master’s work in systematic theology, moral theology, biblical studies, pastoral care, history of the Church, liturgical history/theology/practice, and canon law, with a one year “break” for a pastoral internship somewhere in between. For those keeping score at home, that will be a grand total of 133 credits in nine semesters of work. Your prayers in this long endeavor will be greatly appreciated over the next half decade.

But that’s not all that’s new. Whereas last year I spent the entire first semester struggling to transition from novitiate, I start this year with a level of comfort unknown to me last year. I know how to get to school and where my classes are, have already established relationships that I can fall back on, a regular schedule within and without the house, a spiritual director I can call and meet with whenever necessary, and a set of leisure opportunities (golf, movies, gym, restaurants) that I can get right back to rather than search for. Without having to establish all of these things in a new city like I had to do last year, my stress level is next to nothing at the moment. This, I might add, is a tremendous gift at the beginning of a difficult academic year.

Lastly, whereas I taught two confirmation classes for 8th grade boys last year, ministering to a demographic that stretched me outside of my comfort zone, this year I will be working with campus ministry at Georgetown University, ministering to an age group that is a little bit more my speed. I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be doing yet, but I’m excited to be with young people in such a formative time in their lives in any way that I can. I have no delusions that the experience will be an easy one, but I look forward to the challenges ahead.

For now, it’s off to do what I will be doing for the rest of the term, reading, completed with a late episode of The Simpsons with a few guys in the house (a show, I might add, shows its characters in church or discussing religious topics more than any show on television. Really. The Vatican Newspaper even praised the show once. Really! Maybe I can team up with my classmate Ed Tverdek, an avid follower of the show, and write an post about it. I digress…) Blessings on all of you this year, and for those in the academic world, good luck with all your studies!

Summer Plans

This about sums it up...

This about sums it up…

All papers and exams are finished, grades are in, and I’m outa here! It’s been a long and tiresome year (with a lot of fruit to show for it, I will add) and it’s on to the next thing. What is the next thing? It doesn’t matter as long as it isn’t school for three months!

Actually, the first all of the friars did immediately after finals were over was to go on a retreat. From Monday to Friday of last week, the seven temporary professed, two directors, and one visiting friar, enjoyed a relaxing and rejuvenating time at PriestField Pastoral Center in West Virginia. Among the least structured retreats I have been on since joining the friars, the purpose of the retreat was less about deep spiritual encounter or conversion, and more about fraternal time and simply processing all that went on in the year. While there was a lot of time for communal and personal prayer, guided reflections and personal quiet time, there was also a lot of time for talking, joking around, having fun, and just enjoying each other’s company. Prayer and quiet are great things, but there’s something to be said about setting up intentional time away from home to be with one’s community in a mostly-prayerful environment. Definitely a great way to end the year.

From there, we’re off to our summer assignments. While we’re not in school, friars are sent to one of our many ministries on the east coast to gain pastoral experience in real-life situations. The process of picking an assignment is very open, and follows a dialogical process: the director meets with the student friar to discuss the desires of the student with the possible openings, the two think and prayer about the best fit for the student, and once a decision has been made, the provincial council is asked to approve or deny an assignment. In almost every case this year each student was given his first choice. You can read about each of the assignments here.

My assignment is at St. Anthony of Padua Church and School in Camden, NJ. It is in a rough part of town (as if there is a nice part!) that is largely Spanish speaking. Those who know me well will note that no hablo Español, and those who know anything about a normally functioning human being will note that I’d prefer not to be shot. Just saying. In any event, despite the obvious drawbacks for the normally functioning human being (oh, and did I mention that the church doesn’t have air conditioning?) I have to admit that this was actually my first choice. Ever since I visited St. Anthony’s back in the postulant year I have been attracted to this community in the way that the friars work with the poorest and the most outcast people you can find (both immigrants and people from New Jersey), live as simply as anyone in our whole province, do incredible work in bringing a broken community together, wear their habits as much as I have seen (not that this is a high criteria, just something I prefer) and they have a dog (and no, this is not secretly the only reason I chose Camden… although I list it for a reason.)

I’m not entirely sure what I’ll be doing throughout the summer, but I know that I’ll be busy. The church has a community garden, a house for AIDS patients to come for food and the dignity of touch/friendship, an active youth leadership group that empowers students to take action in community government, and services to the poor, not to mention the regular activities such as bible study, faith sharing, and liturgies.

With all that said, the real reason I picked Camden was its ministry of presence. As odd as it sounds, I am looking forward to being in place where I have to struggle to communicate, where I will be with the less-than-popular people in a less-than-glamourous town living a simple, even dirty lifestyle. I am sure that there will be a lot for me to do, and I look forward to all of that, but what I am really looking forward to is simply being present to a people and place that has so much to teach me.

But before all of that, there is something much more important to be done: vacation! I’ve chosen to split my two weeks of vacation in two, taking one week starting tomorrow and one week in August before school, both of which will be in Raleigh, NC with my family. I’m not sure if I’ll find the time or inspiration to write while there, but check back throughout the summer for what I hope will be rich (and more frequent) reflections! Please keep me in your prayers!