Guadalupe Reflection

I’m back home in San Antonio after a long semester in Houston. Life is good. God continues to bless.

While vesting to altar serve at Mass this morning, the visiting priest asked me give the homily. Unprepared and canonically unable to (the homily is reserved for an ordained minister), I protested a bit. But he insisted so I complied. You know… obedience. Let’s call it a reflection instead. Armed with 10 minutes of preparation, a quick read through the readings, a semester of trying to figure out what role Mary is supposed to play in my spiritual life, and a recent trip to the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City, I gave some variant of the following reflection. Afterward a few people asked me for a transcript of what I spoke, so I sat down and tried to write from memory.

Speaking as someone who’s long struggled with the necessity and role of Mary in the devotions in the Church, I’ve been coming to a deeper appreciation of this truth: The simple fact, proven time and time again throughout history, is that Mary desires nothing more than to bring every person on earth into relationship with her son Jesus Christ. That’s something to celebrate.

Fr. Manuel met us at Mass, invited us to the Sacristy, and gave us a private view of the image

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Convocation 2016

Every August we have a 4 day Convocation with all the diocese seminarians. It’s a chance to get all the seminarians together, build fraternity, catch up after summer assignments, and refresh before heading back to school. This is especially appreciated because we spend most of the year divided up into 6 different seminaries. Convocation and Christmas dinner are the two times a year that everyone is together.

Each year I appreciate the event more and more. First year I showed up and felt totally overwhelmed. I walked into a room with 40 strangers, most of whom already knew each other. Everyone was kind, but it was a lot to take in. Second year was great because I had friends I had spent the year with that I hadn’t seen all summer. This year was even better because I’m slowly building up friendships with more of my brothers. I got to spend time with the guys I was in school with, the men I’ll be joining at St. Mary’s, and the new men who will be starting their first year. I spent one night listening to a table full of recently ordained priests and deacons discuss their experiences as ordained ministers. I continue to grow a deeper appreciation for the men God just has given me to journey with and eventually serve alongside in ministry.

This isn’t a retreat as you’d typically imagine. We go to mass, pray the Liturgy of the Hours together, and schedule time for personal holy hours, but it’s mostly a social gathering. Vacation is a truer sense of the word – time for rest and personal re-creation. One of the days we went out to a lake house. Some nearby parishioners donated boats so we could wake board, tube, and cruise on the lake. Another afternoon we went to a ranch for lunch, swimming, Olympics watching, and volleyball. The newly ordained priests and Bishop Joe always jump in on the volleyball action. It’s not every day you see your leader and shepherds arguing over line calls and exchanging spikes at the net. Bishop is actually really good.

Highlights

This picture with the Aggie Catholic Seminarians: Fr Brian was the vocation director who accepted most of us into Seminary. Now he’s our Pastor when we go home to Aggieland.

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Dcn Joseph: I’ve heard it constantly throughout formation, but now I’m realizing more and more that I’m most able to minister to someone when I have personally encountered Christ’s mercy in the place they are struggling. I can only show love from places of my heart that I know I am loved. I’ve found that the most effective homilies are ones that I can speak from a place of encounter in my own life.

Fr Sean: Being a priest rocks! Every single confession makes the years of prep totally worth it. I wake up every morning and realize I don’t have to find a parish to go to mass at. I’m a priest now, I can do that now. Wait… I’m a priest!!!

Jimmy: One of my best friends – fellow Aggie, diocese transplant, and classmate, At our formal dinner he stood up and gave a profoundly vulnerable reflection on his experiences at IPF this Summer. He shared how the blessed mother has guided him to allow Jesus to remove the walls surrounding his stony heart (Ek 36:26). It brings me great joy to see friends share the ways Christ is healing wounds and shining truth on previously believed lies.

Bishop Joe: The more time I spend around him, the more I realize his deep love for the priests of the Diocese. He really is a father to us and cares about our lives. “Trust me, I read your stuff. I know what you are experiencing. I want your best.” In his official address to the seminarians he emphasized, “Absolutely nothing can substitute for your own encounter with Jesus.” Further, priestly ministry is not a solo act. You cannot be a lone wolf. Priestly fraternity is absolutely essential, and that starts now.

Bishop Danny: “The only posture that matters is for you to know yourself as a beloved son of the Father. That is THE identity that defines everything else in your life.” From there, Pastoral Charity is the priestly virtue. Are you allowing your heart to be moved by the suffering of others? Everything in a priest’s life is for the sake of pouring self out to the Church.

Now I’m moved into Houston, finished a week of orientation, and class begins Monday. This weekend I’m driving out to Baton Rouge to help clear out flooded houses, so I’d appreciate any prayers you want to offer for the families we’ll be assisting.

Intimate and Unceasing Union

I’m spending this summer at the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University. I’m here with 175 seminarians from across the country (and Canada!), including 4 classmates from Austin. This summer program is dedicating to building up the spiritual lives of seminarians. I’ve only been here a week, but it’s already wonderfully evident that IPF exists for one reason – to teach me how to pray. The goals of the program speak for themselves:

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UD in Review – Classes and Books

A few weeks ago I finished my last class at UD and moved out of Holy Trinity Seminary. In August, I’ll move to Houston and begin studies at St. Mary’s Seminary. It was a fantastic two years and I am incredibly grateful for the education I received. I don’t talk about classes too much, simply because I’m reading and learning so much I would have no idea how to compress it all down and tell you anything intelligible. That said, intellectual formation is a major part of priestly formation, so I’ll branch out of my normal style and, for those interested, drop a list of all the classes I’ve taken, the major texts we read, and the titles of essays I wrote (that I could find). If you like lists of books, this one is for you.

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Seminary Brotherhood

When I was discerning where to enter seminary, the community life of religious orders was the one thing holding me back from diocesan life. I talked a bit about that decision when I first entered. For a while I had the perception that parish priests live lonely lives alone in a rectory while the religious hang out all the time with their best friends. I’ve come to learn that both of those views are pretty skewed. Parish priests need community just as much as religious; they just have to work harder to maintain it.

Community

There are too many good things about seminary to pick a best, but high on that list would be my experience of brotherhood with my fellow seminarians. Community and friendship have always been near to my heart, but seminary has really driven home how essential it is to a holistic, healthy, holy life. The formators here are emphatic about our need to develop friendships both inside and outside of seminary. Fr. John Nepil explains this very well with the emphasis that deep, supportive community requires vulnerability, and not simply transparency:

“Sadly, priests are the first to say they don’t need it, “and besides we are really busy.”  Most priests I have met who have left the priesthood were isolated and didn’t pray; all of them lacked vulnerability in prayer and in relationships.  But for some reason few have realized that the grave privation of constancy in relationships, at the source of so much destruction.  Unless our relationships are consistent, deep trust cannot emerge and vulnerability becomes impossible.  Vulnerability does not exist on its own; it is always the fruit of commitment.”

The formators recognize the tendency to isolate and speak about it often. In the seminary, we are encouraged to have both close personal friends and tight diocese/class groups. The formators go so far as to make comments such as (always moderated and in context), “In 7 years you won’t care if you got an A or a B in that class, but you will continue to need the support of your brother priests. If doing worse on an assignment allows you to spend time and build supportive friendships, do it.” They are trying to drill into us how important community is so that we’ll be ready when we do live alone in a rectory .

At the seminary, Austin brothers and Pre-The 2 classmates are my primary community.

Diocese Brothers

 

Annual Austin HTS Christmas Card

Every Wednesday we have “Keep Austin Weird Wednesday”. We all wear our diocese polos, squeeze into a breakfast table, and share good times. Recently we started adding in “High, Low, God moments” (I learned it on my Spring Break mission trip to the Dominican Republic) in order to get a better grasp of what we are struggling with and where God is moving in prayer. Moments like those are the foundation and fruit of vulnerability in community. We have learned that we can trust each other with failings, doubts, and struggles.

It sounded like a good idea

Diocese Brother (DB) nights happen once a month. They usually involve a meal away from the seminary and some activity. Some examples include bowling, ice skating, city park exploring, C-League Basketball (Austin Spurs!), and chili cookoffs. Most recently we had our end of semester db night in which the graduating class organized a last hurrah of prayer and reminiscing. We gave out Austin Weirdo Awards, shared memories based on prompts Jimmy created (ex “I remember at DCYC when… Remember that time we ended up at a baseball game… The best part of the Korean BBQ restaurant experience was…), spent time in silent prayer, shared ‘where am I at right now’ updates, then took turns individually affirming each brother on the ways we have seen God’s action in their life this year. It was an incredible night. I’m blessed to continue on with these guys and see them throughout the year even away from seminary (Convocation is one annual gathering).

Pre-Theology Brothers

The Pre-Theology class is my other primary community. After our fifth classmate left early in our first semester, we’ve stayed strong through many struggles and joys.  I consider each man to be a best friend. We share classes, weekly class outings, and unplanned class meetings in the hallway. These guys have been great to journey with as we learned the ropes of seminary and post-college life. Because we have semi-similar backgrounds (all graduated from large state universities), we’ve learned together how to think philosophy, deal with younger seminarians, temper our passion for pastoral ministry with seminary life, and balance time spent between old and new friends. We’ve also had lots of fun – road trips to Mexico and New Mexico, more chilli cookoffs, board games, bubble tea, etc.

With Fr. Swift

– The class with Fr. Swift

Friendship is always a hard thing to quantify, but I think these guys have given me the best glimpse of what a close-knit community looks like. They go out of their way to support each other – sacrificing time and personal desires to build up the other. Moreso, it’s a group of men that truly share life and self with each other. I knew we had arrived when last semester we were out for coffee and one guy made the comment, “Hey so I know this thing really bothers you. How did you respond when that came up in class today?” Comments like that are now pretty standard – “Are you feeling ok after that lecture?” “Did that talk clear up your anxiety?” “I finally understand now when you speak about your perpetual frustration.” They don’t require effort or prompting, they just happen spontaneously as we spend time together. Quoting one more time from Fr. John Nepil:

“Transparency, the rendering of one’s interiority manifest to the other, is a good in itself.  But this is not vulnerability.  The former requires no risks, is safe because we remain in control.  Vulnerability is the greatest of risks, because we can experience the greatest of rejections.  Transparency is when the friend manifests their life to you in such a way as you are not invited into it, where exhortation or encouragement is not permitted.  Vulnerability requires that I manifest my life in such a way as I become capable of being wounded (vulnus in latin is wound).  I have to expose my life to you in such a way that permits you to enter into it, and not merely observe it. 

I maintain many close friendships from before entering seminary,  but never experienced the closeness in a group of friends that I currently have. That group intimacy carries with it opportunities to be “called out” and challenged by the same men that are walking with me as I struggle to grow. We began at a level of transparency, willing to speak about ourselves but not inviting the others to be a part of it. Vulnerability is something I’ve had to learn, but the learning has brought such an abiding joy that I don’t know how I lived without it. I now have a group of men who can listen to my issues, “I really hate X. This thing is pissing me off. I’m not sure how to deal with that teaching. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do that as a priest,” hear me, and intelligently respond. That’s community – Brotherhood, not bromance.

In Ruidoso

As I enter finals week and start packing up my time at HTS, I am deeply grateful for these men who have made it such a transformative time. I’m confident I would not have made it this far in formation without them.

Oh, Howdy Bishop

On my way back to my room from the library, I ran across Bishop Kelly coming home from the front doors. Slightly surprised, I offered an “Oh, Howdy Bishop” and came straight here to reflect on another of the unique circumstances of living in a Seminary.

Bishop Kelly

When I moved into the Seminary last year, Bishop Kelly was simply Monsignor Kelly. He served as the vicar for clergy for the diocese of Dallas (kinda like a personnel manager for all the priests) and lived at the seminary so he could stay close to the future priests. He is an alum of HTS, previously served as the campus chaplain at UD, and recently completed a short stint as interim rector of the seminary. He celebrated Mass every few weeks and always gave the best homilies. I’d sit with him at meals and talk about formation, classes, sports, or local news, and ran into him every morning at the newspaper table.

Over Christmas break, we heard that Msgr Kelly had been appointed Auxilary Bishop of Dallas by Pope Francis, and in February we attended his ordination. Before his ordination, he gave a homily at the seminary in which he described his emotions immediately after receiving the appointment phone call. He described a few days in which he couldn’t believe what was being asked of him but ultimately found consolation in the belief that the same Christ who had sustained him in priestly ministry would continue to sustain him in Episcopal ministry (specifically quoting psalm 55). Choking back tears he said:

“I never wanted this… but if the Holy Father desires it I will say ‘yes’. I will accept it as the path to holiness God has chosen for me.” 

Bishop Kelly Seminary

In the chapel at HTS

Now, I live in the same building as a Bishop in charge of the souls of the ~1 million Catholics in the Diocese of Dallas. In fact, he lives about 30 feet down the hall from me. It’s not unusual to sit down in the chapel for prayer at night and find him sitting in the pew right behind me, or, like tonight, run into him at night when he returns from a day of Bishop-ing. Every time we cross paths he greets me with a smile and a kind word. I’ve never seen him angry. He loves people. What did he do on Easter Sunday? Celebrate mass at a hospital because the Chaplain was out ill.

In a semester that has been marked by my realization of the difficulty of ecclesial obedience and an ongoing struggle to trust that the men in charge of the Church really are guided by the Holy Spirit, Bishop Kelly is a constant source of consolation. Praise God, and please pray, for the holy shepherds he provides.


School Update: I just finished my last paper of the semester (epistemology – 5 pages on how the systems of Descartes and Hume both end in skepticism of the external world). It’s nice to be finished after a three week stretch during which I completed four papers totaling about 30 pages of writing. I wrote more in this past month than in my entire undergrad. Thanks UD.

Update 3/15/17 – Here’s a more recent reflection on another Bishop who made a huge impact on me. – Priest, Bishop, Father