It’s 6AM…And I Get to Do Ministry Today

So I woke up by the paws of a hungry dog prodding me to give him his morning kibble. My wife usually handles those duties and she did the same this morning, “I got him, go back to sleep.” God love her, she knows I have a long day today as I do most Sundays. Everyone else has the day off but my sabbath day is usually another day during the week because on Sunday, I’m out being a huckster for the Lord. I’m far from a morning person, but this morning I’m up!

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Oh sure, being the Campus Minister is hard enough work. “Like herding cats,” one colleague from another campus once remarked. “No.” I replied, “It’s like herding MICE. They’re faster and they can hide much easier than the average housecat.” And at a secular university, rife with atheistic viewpoints all around me, the mice scatter in twenty different directions. And to belabor the metaphor, Jesus said we have to gather the sheep together and not lose one, to search endlessly for that one and rejoice when we find that lost one.

He didn’t say anything about mice and yet here I go…

My campus is a unique one. I’m at the smaller of two University of Buffalo campuses plus a third downtown campus that will explode soon into a brand spanking new medical campus by 2017. Our larger main campus, is pretty straightforward…it’s where most undergraduates have their classes and the administration folks are over there and essentially it’s what most people think of when you mention UB.

Our South Campus is different. We have all the pre-professional schools at our place: Medicine, Nursing, Dentistry, Architecture, Health Sciences and Social Work. A new pharmacy building has just opened (complete with a Tim Horton’s) right nearby the church which sits on the edge of the campus tucked between two parking lots. Further afield on the other side of campus are two residence halls, one of international students and one of freshman undergrads. And just when it couldn’t get any more diverse, our neighborhood is the party central neighborhood. Tons of students, many upperclass undergrads and graduate students call University Heights home and they are from all kinds of backgrounds.

And each semester I have to remind myself of one very important thing:

Nobody goes to a State University for the Campus Ministry, much less, the Catholic Campus Ministry.

Sure, you might go to a Catholic School like Fordham or Canisius because you went to a Jesuit High School. Or you might go to Notre Dame because of their Catholicism. But the admissions office at a State University isn’t exactly touting the marvels of a University parish in their package.

And so, it’s up to me. I have to be open to the students inviting not just Catholic students into Sunday mass, but also inviting the university to continue to be open to conversations with us. We do lunchtime lectures for our medical and nursing students. We hit the neighborhood and do community service gathering students who want to give back and also students who have run afoul of the university’s policies. We offer break trips that seek to do more than what MTV’s Spring Break has to offer.

I’ve found myself walking amongst who I call “the living dead” at our medical school. The sacred bodies of those who have donated their bodies to the medical school for medical students to dissect and learn anatomy while they too, are being dissected, dealing with the emotions involved with probing into another human being’s most intimate parts.

I’ve been an actor in the Behling Simulation Center, playing the role of a family member or patient for those who are studying to be doctors, physician assistants, nurses and physical and occupational therapists. I’ve had to cry when they tell me I have lung cancer or that my child has asthma. I try to be the difficult family member who keeps asking questions and getting in the way. And they tell me that I help make it “all too real” for them.

And I mostly try not to be a creep. Because there are plenty of “religious creeps” out there.

“Are you saved?” “Don’t you love Jesus?…don’tcha? Don’tcha? DON’TCHA?”

The list of things I’ve heard about how some folks have been approached (more like attacked) by religious types on campus really disgusts me some days. And it makes my job a thousand times harder because now religion has a bad name.

I think the University faculty like to see me coming because they know I’m simply not a nutburger. And that’s good because they are the trusted source for many of our students, if not most. And they help me be a better minister.

Some days, my job is hard. Walls are put up and I could try to scale them or go around them, but most of the time I just need to gently knock on the little door that most people miss in that wall. And when that door cracks open I simply have to make a sales pitch. We’re all concerned with the students and their academic success. We all want to develop better people for the world’s needs. We all want students and a university that we can be proud of.

Some seek me out after having a good experience with me at mass, or a community service event or an alternative break. One student tells me that he dreaded having to sit next to me for a 9 hour bus ride to New York City and by the end of the ride he didn’t want to sit anywhere else. I get to hear their troubles and anxieties in spiritual direction and their longing to be closer to God, to have lives of deep meaning, heading in the direction of Rahner’s “infinite horizon.” Even the ones who don’t espouse Catholicism long for connecting deep with the divine. I guide them as a spiritual director and when I hear what some are dealing with I’m surprised they are walking and talking in an all too wounded world, never mind, going to school to get a degree in the midst of such chaos.

I play games with numbers each week, trying not to get to disappointed when students say “I’d love to do service, or come to mass, but I’m so busy” noting their eclipsed spirituality and wondering what I might be able to do on their terms to engage them in their too busy schedules. I remind myself that Jesus started with 12 and this week we read that most of those that they recruited all went away leaving Jesus to wonder if the 12 he started with were going to leave too.

It’s just crazy and always messy and some days I suck at it but most days I think I do pretty well…and God is right there in the mess of it all.

I can’t sleep this morning not out of anxiousness or nerves, but rather because it’s the exciting start of a new semester.

I get to do ministry today.

And that is more than enough for me.

8PM this evening…St Joseph’s University Parish at UB South…come and see what I get to do.

Best Easter Vigil… Ever

So I’ve been blessed by parishes that do good liturgy throughout my adult life. But I think this year had to have been one of the best Easter Vigil Masses I have ever been to.

As we lit our candles from the Easter Candle and shattered the darkness we prayed the Exultet louder and louder–as the Jews pray at the wailing wall. (I wish I had video or audio of this but I was lighting candles). The prayers just built higher and higher and the music for the Exultet built as well until the sound of crashing symbols called us back into silence and then music. Beautiful.

Dramatic readings led us into hearing the story of our salvation and they were wonderfully prepared by a bunch of strong actors and lectors and my wife who did one in sign language. And our gospel proclamation complete with procession by our Deacons was also moving as was Fr. Jack’s homily.

Of course seeing the newly baptized and confirmed always moves me, but it especially did this week. We are a church mired in scandal and yet, 11 people decided to join our universal church in our parish and thousands more worldwide. Here’s just a snip of confirmation along with our outstanding Contemporary Music Ensemble singing the best version of the Litany of Saints that I’ve heard in some time.

He is risen, indeed. I’m part of a great community and He is truly alive in them.

Continued Easter Blessings to you and yours.

And we know that He is alive.

Prayer Intention for Sunday’s Alternative Break

This morning I pray with gratitude for the students who have travelled with Katie and me to New York City. It has been a long journey and now we begin our work.

Lord, help us see your face in the eyes of the elderly today. May we come to value our elders and see their lives not as disposable or “used up” but rather, as imbued with your grandeur. All life is sacred and while it is hard for us to see those at the end of life deteriorating, it is helpful to remind ourselves that you Lord, were among the elderly of your time. We don’t often remember that.

I recall my own parents, now elderly themselves in their 80s, with gratitude for always listening and trusting that I would develop into the person that they hoped I could become. I am lucky to have them for this long as they did not have their own parents very long. While I learned how to be an adult and a husband from them, they learned to be parents by trial and error. And they did so with great love for my sister and me and for you, Lord.

Today be with our students, that they might celebrate old age in their youth, so that when they get old, they might be able to celebrate all that they are and all that they have been.

NYC Bound

We are headed to NYC today on Megabus to serve the needs of the poor. You can follow our meanderings here all week long as I’ll have some students doing reflections throughout the week.

We’ll be working with Kateri senior residence, Mercy Center in the Bronx, Covenant House and we’ll work with students doing a sandwich run to a local homeless shelter.

Please pray for safety and that we can see that God is indeed with us and in the lives of the poor.

Bless Our Pastoral Planners

I ask for you to join the pastoral staff at St. Joseph University Church in prayer today as we begin our pastoral planning time. It’s our time to discern how we serve the needs of our parish community and the students of the University of Buffalo’s South Campus.

And so we ask you to pray with us:

Water is indeed a symbol that is full of richness for us. It is something that we cannot live without. It can refresh us on a hot summer day. It helps us cook food, wash ourselves and there’s nothing quite like boating or swimming on the water.

But water can also bring up scary images as well. Like drowning or floods, or being in over our heads. The disciples knew of water’s power when they were tossed on the waves before Jesus calmed them and when Peter began to sink because of his lack of faith. The waters of Katrina and of the Indian Tsunami reminded us all too well of water’s destructive power.

For me, however, water has always been a particular symbol that reminds me of God working in my life.

Because when I am moved by the spirit, I cry.

Tears flow easily when I pray. I can’t explain it and I no longer am embarrassed by them. The tears are signs of the spirit and that God and I are intimately connecting, most of the time through others but sometimes in quiet and stillness too. This is something that Ignatius was in touch with as well. He called it the gift of tears and in fact, he said we should pray to be so moved in prayer–to receive such a gift.

Often I would say that if this is God’s idea of a gift.. I’d like to give it back. But now I know better…because these tears are indeed a sign that the spirit is indeed alive and they remind me of God’s intimate connection with each one of us.
All truly great prayer – rises from deep inside and springs spontaneously to the surface. It would then seem – that from among the many beautiful prayers,
the scared songs and canticles of praise, my tears my be the best worship of all. And you should know that from the moment I stepped into this church, my tears have not ceased. The spirit is indeed alive here and is moving us to discern that spirit today.

It is water the first sign of our sacramental life in the church. God chooses to initiate us into the church through the saving waters of baptism…and perhaps that when we are so moved (some of us more often than others) it is God’s way of reminding us of our need to minister to one another–that like our Godparents we are all indeed responsible for one another.

So as we begin our time together, we remind oursleves that we are Christians, we remind oursleves that God loves us and that even when we are overwhelmed and feel like we are drowning or when things have gotten dry–God indeed can calm those waves and bring us to a new and refreshing ways of life.

So let us begin our time together by calling God’s blessing down upon this water, and then let us bless one another with a sign of our faith.

Named After St Joseph

As a parishioner of St. Joseph’s University Parish in Buffalo these days, I was particularly disappointed to not be able to go to mass there on the Feast of the Holy Family. After all, St Joseph has no lines in the bible and has a feast day that is royally overshadowed on March 19th by the great feast of St Patrick just two days earlier. So Joseph is inclined to take any feast day that he gets a mention!

One of the more remarkable stories that I’ve heard on the Feast of the Holy Family comes from my good friend, Fr. Ron Franco, CSP. This Sunday, since we were visiting friends and family in NYC, I went to the Church of St. Paul the Apostle (the Paulist motherhouse and the church that Marion and I were married in) and was hoping that perhaps this story would get a repeat performance in his homily. Alas, the good Father was not presiding. However, I will do my best to recall his story.

Back in the day, Fr. Ron’s grandmother was pregnant and she decided that she was going to name the baby after St. Joseph. Unfortunately, she miscarried. Pregnant again, she again vowed to name the baby after the foster-father of Jesus. But after a second miscarriage, she cried out, “That St. Joseph is a jinx! Never again, will I EVER name a child after St. Joseph.”

Who could blame her really?

When she became pregnant again the question presented to her was how was she going to decide the name of the baby since St. Joseph was persona non grata?

“That’s easy,” she replied. “I will just name the child after the saint whose feast is on the day that she or he is born!”

A simple solution, to be sure. However, when the baby was born on March 19, that idea presented her with a conundrum. St. Joseph’s Day. The dreaded jinx. But true to her word, Fr. Ron’s grandmother gave her little girl the promised name. And so she became Fr. Ron’s Aunt Josephine.

But even more remarkable was that Fr. Ron’s grandmother renwed her faith with a great devotion indeed to St. Joseph.

I too, have been quite close to Josephs in my own life. My parent’s were married in St. Joseph’s Church in Yonkers and I too, was baptized there. My college roommate and close friend is named Joseph. My financial adviser is named Joseph. And the young man who has been such a joy for me to listen to in spiritual direction as his director when I often feel very close to God the most is in fact, also named Joseph. And now I embark on a new phase in my life at a church where Joseph is the patron.

An interesting character, St. Joseph has no lines spoken in the gospels. We know he was a craftsman or artisan of some kind, some say a carpenter, but others say he was a bit more than simply a worker of wood. And indeed his life was one insurmountable task after another. It’s no wonder that Fr. Ron’s grandma was able to reacquaint with the great saint after some time of trouble.

Joseph was promised that Mary would be his wife and then, one day, out of the blue, she ends up pregnant. Joseph’s first reaction is to say simply, “Oh well. I’ll just end this marriage deal quietly and fade out of the picture.” We gloss over the fact that by law, Joseph had the right to stone Mary to death. Instead he shows mercy and restraint. I like to imagine Joseph tearfully, considering whether he should stone this woman that perhaps he has come to love, that in his old age he was looking forward to marrying. He can’t bear to even think of doing that and so he walks away. It is great foreshadowing for a later gospel story of the woman caught in adultery who Jesus forgives and in fact, saves from stoning.

Joseph chooses to simply back out. But during what was no doubt a restless sleep, Joseph’s insecurities play out in a dream. God comforts these insecurities by telling Joseph those words that we hear more than any other words in the bible: “Do not be afraid.” In this case, God tells him to take Mary into his home and to raise this son who he will name Jesus.

The man who wanted nothing to do with this relationship, who was dismissive of the whole thing, now becomes the protector of God himself. God places His human body in the strong sure hands of a simple carpenter who indeed designed the plan that would keep both Jesus and Mary safe indeed, especially in a poor society where infant mortality was very high and where people didn’t always live into their 30s.

Besides all this, imagine having to teach God! Imagine throwing a baseball to God and telling Him that he throws like a girl that first time out? Imagine teaching him how to make a chair–when you know full well that he probably knows 27 better and faster ways to do it? Imagine worrying if you were teaching him anything at all, or if you were actually doing a good job of protecting God from the ills of society? Would Joseph have to punish Jesus for being late? Would he have to help him discern his vocation in life? Would he be upset at his new ideas and his choice of ministry?

Joseph indeed has it tough.

But the fact that Jesus and Mary live as long as they do in no small way is due to this hidden saint. Joseph the silent provider does his job without any fanfare. We don’t hear much about Joseph after the infancy narratives. We presume him to be dead during Jesus’ passion and death because he is not with Mary at the foot of the cross. Joseph doesn’t live to see God’s plan fulfilled. But in my imagination, I often fantasize about Joseph sitting at the right hand of God the Father after the Ascension and after standing up, he runs, embraces his son and says, “Here you go, Son, I made this chair just for you.”

Could we be that unassuming? Could we trust that God has the plan for us when we can barely understand what is going on around us, when all seems strange and unexpected?

Could we take such good care of God and moreover, do we let God take good care of us?

Today my prayer is one of imagination. I imagine Joseph in his old age being comforted by a sad Jesus at his deathbed. I think it is there that Joseph got a special gift. He got to see God seconds before his death and then again seconds after it. May we all be comforted by Jesus in our final hours and each day that we live to serve God with all that we are…

Even when times seem difficult.

Investing in UB’s Campus Ministry

We had a great fund raising evening last night at St Joseph’s University parish for the UB South Campus Ministry. The evening was a tasting event that included wine, beer, food, desserts, cider and a whole lot more. Many items were up for auction as well. I even scored a pair of prime Buffalo Sabres seats for a not-so hefty sum.

It’s impressive that the “regular parishioners” have made such a huge commitment to Campus Ministry. They bring in a lot of donors and the entire parish comes to the event to support students that many of them don’t even know. They’ve also entrusted that money to me, in a way, to do programming that would be worth the investment that they have made. It’s humbling and a huge challenge.

In 1991, the diocese asked the parish to become a University Parish and it would have been very easy for the parish to balk at that prospect. But they didn’t. They took on the challenge of that merge extremely well and made a commitment to be part of something bigger.

Their commitment shows. Now my job begins with the search for new and better student leadership and further engagement with different programming for the students.

Special thanks goes to Marianna Moffitt and her family for not merely taking the lead in putting this fund raiser together but for making it an elegant event and doing all of the work to pull it off. She is a dynamo and we are thankful to have someone so generous with her time and resources working for the needs of the students.

Today let us pray for all of those benefactors who serve the needs of ministry and often go unseen. We need you. We need your talent and your time and yes, we need your dollars too.

Think about donating to your favorite ministry today…

And then go do it.