Father Dennis

to let others know a bit of insight into the mind of a Midwestern Catholic priest.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Holy Family 2015

My Dear brothers and sister in Christ
    
Peace be with you. As I was reading over the first reading from the First Book of Samuel, I couldn’t help but think about my niece and nephew named, appropriately enough, Hannah and Sam. Hannah is three years older than Sam and, at points, struggles to tolerate her younger brother. In the first reading, the namesakes of my niece and nephew aren’t siblings but mother and son. The mother, Hannah, is so excited to receive the gift of Samuel, her child, that she freely offers him to Eli, the priest, to be raised. I’m sure that there were many times during their growing up years that my niece would have gladly taken my nephew to their church to leave him there. Thank goodness even the worst knock-down, drag-out fight between siblings never ended with a hog-tied little boy sitting on my rectory steps. And that, as they’ve gotten older, my niece has found a way to not only get along with her little brother but to use him as a taxi service between buildings.
    
Both the first reading and the gospel give us a glimpse into a confusing and unique aspect of family life that I think is often overlooked but very important. What is it that would cause a mother who was barren to be willing to give the first child she ever received to God? As a person who has worked with young men who are considering priesthood, I know that often parents are the second hardest people to tell about a vocation. When I work with guys in college, they first have to convince themselves, and maybe their girlfriends, that God may in fact be calling them to priesthood before they tell their parents. Sometimes the parents are excited but many times the parents see nothing but loneliness and complications for their sons and a dearth of grandchildren for themselves. God even makes it complicated for Hannah in the scriptures because, when she goes to the temple to pray for a son, Eli, the very high priest to whom she would eventually hand over Samuel, accuses her of being drunk and tries to send her away. But, Hannah’s response shows both pluck and humility by saying that she hasn’t been pouring drinks down her throat but has been pouring out her troubles to God. She isn’t going to allow an inarticulate priest to distract her from praying to God for a son. She understands what Pope John Paul II referred to as the law of the gift. 
    
The law of the gift says that your being increases in the measure that you give it away. That’s why, immediately after giving Samuel to the priests, she prays one of the most beautiful prayers in Sacred Scripture. “My heart exults in the Lord, my horn is exalted by my God. I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in your victory.” Her being is lifted up because she willingly gave away her son. You see, it’s when you give back what God has given you that you are exalted, that you are lifted up. We tend to think that happiness comes from being filled up by God. But it is precisely the opposite, when we empty ourselves of all the possessions and worries and cares that weigh us down, that we can be lifted up to share in the glory of God. 
    
The same is true in this confusing and frustrating gospel. In my heart, this is a great example of the Bible turning a common reaction in a completely different way because of the law of the gift. After Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah, he remains behind to converse and impress the unnamed high priests of his time. One wonders if young Annas and Caiaphas were present during the three days that Jesus learned and taught in the Temple. Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph’s walk back home to Nazareth is interrupted in a Home Alone moment of realizing that Jesus is not hanging out with his cousins. They hurry back to Jerusalem and search for three days only to find him still in the Temple. Imagine the anguish they must have felt at losing Jesus and all the thoughts that would have gone through their heads. Has he been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Egypt? Has he upset some resident in the big city of Jerusalem and gotten himself killed? Has he become a hawkeye fan? I’m sure these and a thousand other horrors crossed their minds as they searched everywhere in Jerusalem. You can just imagine the emotions they would have felt when they looked in the last place they thought, the temple, to find him. They ask him, “Why have you done this to us?”  and Jesus responds “Did you not know I must be in my father’s house.” Jesus’ response may seem like he is a typical smart mouthed teenager but, in truth, he is evidencing the very attitude of Hannah. He is offering up his very self in order to be glorified by God. And he will continue to do so as he goes home to go through the stages of development that every person has to go through as a teenager and young adult. What’s interesting is that Luke includes the detail that Mary kept these things in her heart. Her life will, therefore, be an exercise in learning the law of the gift in the hardest way possible. I have a feeling that Mary will think of finding Jesus in the Temple when Jesus is back at this temple being condemned by high priests and will remember the confusion, frustration, anger, and relief she felt when she will again wait for three days to see her son, this time resurrected from the dead. 
    
The law of the gift, then, is at the very heart of the gospel message and, therefore, at the heart of family life. The family is a place where the mission of each family member is discerned and prepared. After days of giving what we hope will be the perfect gift, now is the perfect time to refocus on what is the true gift each of us are seeking. Rather than getting lost in the consumerism of Christmas, find some way to give away yourself, not because we know that God will give us even better stuff if we give things away but because we know that God will be glorified if we humble ourselves. What is God calling you let go in order to glorify him?

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Holy Family 2015 year C



My Dear brothers and sister in Christ

Peace be with you. As I was reading over the first reading from the First Book of Samuel, I couldn’t help but think about my niece and nephew named, appropriately enough, Hannah and Sam. Hannah is three years older than Sam and, at points, struggles to tolerate her younger brother. In the first reading, the namesakes of my niece and nephew aren’t siblings but mother and son. The mother, Hannah, is so excited to receive the gift of Samuel, her child, that she freely offers him to Eli, the priest, to be raised. I’m sure that there were many times during their growing up years that my niece would have gladly taken my nephew to their church to leave him there. Thank goodness even the worst knock-down, drag-out fight between siblings never ended with a hog-tied little boy sitting on my rectory steps. And that, as they’ve gotten older, my niece has found a way to not only get along with her little brother but to use him as a taxi service during her college years.

Both the first reading and the gospel give us a glimpse into a confusing and unique aspect of family life that I think is often overlooked but very important. What is it that would cause a mother who was barren to be willing to give the first child she ever received to God? As a person who has worked with young men who are considering priesthood, I know that often parents are the second hardest people to tell about a vocation. When I work with guys in college, they first have to convince themselves, and maybe their girlfriends, that God may in fact be calling them to priesthood before they tell their parents. Sometimes the parents are excited but many times the parents see nothing but loneliness and complications for their sons and a dearth of grandchildren for themselves. God even makes it complicated for Hannah in the scriptures because, when she goes to the temple to pray for a son, Eli, the very high priest to whom she would eventually hand over Samuel, accuses her of being drunk and tries to send her away. But, Hannah’s response shows both pluck and humility by saying that she hasn’t been pouring drinks down her throat but has been pouring out her troubles to God. She isn’t going to allow an inarticulate priest to distract her from praying to God for a son. She understands what Pope John Paul II referred to as the law of the gift.

The law of the gift says that your being increases in the measure that you give it away. That’s why, immediately after giving Samuel to the priests, she prays one of the most beautiful prayers in Sacred Scripture. “My heart exults in the Lord, my horn is exalted by my God. I have swallowed up my enemies; I rejoice in your victory.” Her being is lifted up because she willingly gave away her son. You see, it’s when you give back what God has given you that you are exalted, that you are lifted up. We tend to think that happiness comes from being filled up by God. But it is precisely the opposite, when we empty ourselves of all the possessions and worries and cares that weigh us down, that we can be lifted up to share in the glory of God.

The same is true in this confusing and frustrating gospel. In my heart, this is a great example of the Bible turning a common reaction in a completely different way because of the law of the gift. After Jesus’ Bar Mitzvah, he remains behind to converse and impress the unnamed high priests of his time. One wonders if young Annas and Caiaphas were present during the three days that Jesus learned and taught in the Temple. Meanwhile, Mary and Joseph’s walk back home to Nazareth is interrupted in a Home Alone moment of realizing that Jesus is not hanging out with his cousins. They hurry back to Jerusalem and search for three days only to find him still in the Temple. Imagine the anguish they must have felt at losing Jesus and all the thoughts that would have gone through their heads. Has he been kidnapped and sold into slavery in Egypt? Has he upset some resident in the big city of Jerusalem and gotten himself killed? Has he become a hawkeye fan? I’m sure these and a thousand other horrors crossed their minds as they searched everywhere in Jerusalem. You can just imagine the emotions they would have felt when they looked in the last place they thought, the temple, to find him. They ask him, “Why have you done this to us?” and Jesus responds “Did you not know I must be in my father’s house.” Jesus’ response may seem like he is a typical smart mouthed teenager but, in truth, he is evidencing the very attitude of Hannah. He is offering up his very self in order to be glorified by God. And he will continue to do so as he goes home to go through the stages of development that every person has to go through as a teenager and young adult. What’s interesting is that Luke includes the detail that Mary kept these things in her heart. Her life will, therefore, be an exercise in learning the law of the gift in the hardest way possible. I have a feeling that Mary will think of finding Jesus in the Temple when Jesus is back at this temple being condemned by high priests and will remember the confusion, frustration, anger, and relief she felt when she will again wait for three days to see her son, this time resurrected from the dead.



The law of the gift, then, is at the very heart of the gospel message and, therefore, at the heart of family life. The family is a place where the mission of each family member is discerned and prepared. After days of giving what we hope will be the perfect gift, now is the perfect time to refocus on what is the true gift each of us are seeking. Rather than getting lost in the consumerism of Christmas, find some way to give away yourself, not because we know that God will give us even better stuff if we give things away but because we know that God will be glorified if we humble ourselves. What is God calling you let go in order to glorify him?

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Christmas 2015



My dear brothers and sister in Christ

Peace be with you. Merry Christmas. I’d like to thank Fr. Greg for letting me celebrate this Mass back in my home parish of St. Mary. I got a new assignment this summer, as the chaplain at Loras College and Clarke University. When the students left for Christmas break, my job also went on break so I’m thankful that I get to be with you all celebrating with all of you.

Do you ever find yourself daydreaming about a better future? I think this is a common reaction when someone is dissatisfied with their job or there is conflict with a spouse or a child or parents. It can especially be true when we expected a job or family to be different or better than what it is. I have some friends with a son born with Down’s Syndrome and many life complications who has had several surgeries in the little over one year since he has been born. Whenever I read about them running to the hospital in the middle of the night because he’s having seizures or because he doesn’t seem to be focusing or because he keeps throwing up, I can’t help but think that it doesn’t seem fair. This isn’t what they signed up for.

I imagine all of us, at one time or another, have felt like things aren’t the way we wished they were. In the first reading, the Prophet Isaiah gives encouragement to his people by telling them “No more shall people call you “Forsaken” or your land “Desolate,” but you call be called “My Delight” and your land “Espoused.” In other words, the Prophet is saying that people currently call the people of Israel a loser or a taker or abandoned and refer to their land as run-down or dilpidated or the ghetto. Right now, they aren’t in a good place. They feel abandoned by God. But, the Prophet tells them, God will not abandon them forever. The will eventually be called God’s favorite, blessed, or the luckiest person that anyone has ever met and his land will be called...married to God. You’d think that the Prophet would say that we will be called blessed and our land “beautiful, winning, or perhaps even winning so much that we will be sick of winning.” But that’s not what he says. Instead, Isaiah reminds people that if they get good things, it doesn’t make them somehow better than those around them. It should make them closer to God. It should engender thankfulness, not pride.

The Gospel of Matthew also presents a difficult situation: Joseph has the perfect wife and has set upon the perfect engagement. He lives in a developing part of the State of Israel, a rich suburb with low crime and great job-opportunities. Then, he finds out that all his plans are going to completely change. Mary is pregnant. As you may know, Joseph has the right to call Mary an adulterer, drag her into the town square, and have her stoned to death. But, instead of doing that, heaven intervenes to explain what’s happening. Instead of having the perfect family with 7-12 kids, which would have been the dream of every man and woman during the time of the Holy Family, they are going to have one child that will not even biologically be Joseph’s son. But, Joseph was necessary because he supplies the connection to King David, as evidenced by the list of names that ordinarily precedes this reading. Jesus will be a descendant of David because of Joseph. His name is Jesus because that name means “God saves”

One thing that always amazes me about my friends is that they never ask why their son was born with Down’s Syndrome or why he has all these physical difficulties. They complain about going to the hospital because they hate to see see the pain that their son has, not because they see the situation as some kind of divine punishment. They have been able to see a larger plan than their own in their son’s life. But that has been the fruit of a lot of prayer, a lot of support from their extended families, and a close connection to a church family. One challenge they faced with their church family was that they weren’t always the best at attending church and they worried about being judged for returning when life got difficult. But they found that church was not the home of perfect people but the refuge of sinners who want to get to know the true perfection of God. It is where God comes to meet his imperfect people. Our lives are not always perfect and we often find that the plans, hopes, and dreams we’ve had in our past is not the reality of the present. During this Year of Mercy, Pope Francis reminds us that we need to have mercy on ourselves when things don’t go the way we expect and recognize the grace of the unplanned detour which takes us closer to God.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Facing my fears and finding out that I should have never been afraid in the first place

Today I did a funeral for a four year old. I have been afraid of this scenario since I was first ordained a priest. I dreaded being a part of something so tragic. Throughout the week and especially at the vigil, I had to stop myself from picturing my own nieces and nephews laying in the tiny little casket so I wouldn't lose it.

But right before things got started this morning, I realized something that I should have realized 14 years ago: It was not about me. I had to keep two goals in mind, namely to acknowledge the tragedy of a lost child and to give the family hope because of a crucified child. That's all And most of that came from prayerfully reading the book the church provides for me. I only had to create 8-10 minutes of my own material and the Holy Spirit even helped with that.

In the end, what mattered was focusing on the family and their needs and their hurts. And that's not something to be afraid of. That's something to love.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Christ our priest, prophet, and King leading us to holiness.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Peace be with you. One of the things that marks a person who receives a sacrament is taking on the three munera or offices of Jesus, namely priest, prophet, and king. For example, after the actual baptism, the person conferring the sacrament takes sacred chrism and anoints the forehead of the baptized person while saying…

"The God of power and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into his holy people.He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet, and King, so may you live always as a member of his body, sharing everlasting life."

These three offices are a part of each sacrament. I’ll talk more about baptism later but let me use marriage as an example. The priestly element of a vocation is when someone acts as an intermediary between the person and God. In this regard, the priestly goal of a husband is to help his wife get to heaven and vice versa and, if they’re blessed with children, the priestly goal of parents is to raise their children in the faith by bringing them to Mass, teaching them to pray, and making sure they regularly celebrate their sacraments. A prophet proclaims God’s teachings and certainly parents are responsible for teaching their children about what is right and wrong but also a husband or a wife may have to instruct a spouse in God’s ways as well. Lastly, marriage shares in the kingly ministry of Jesus by working and providing and maintaining home and other property.

These three offices are especially emphasized in the ordination ritual because priests and bishops exercise them in a more public, unique way. I’ll speak to my experience as a priest. I remember, shortly before I was ordained, a seminary professor telling me that most priests begin thinking that the hardest part would be the priestly or sanctifying parts but would soon learn that actually the kingly part is the hardest. Most people appreciate and understand thinking of their priest as priest and a prophet. A priest stands in the place of Christ our high priest and continues the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ by celebrating the sacraments and especially the Mass. A priest acts as a prophet by challenging the people to turn away from their sinful ways and return to the Lord with their whole heart. In general, I have found that people appreciate the priestly and prophetic role of priesthood and that those who don’t are in error, asking me to follow them down the rabbit hole of heresy.

I will admit that my professor is, in general pretty accurate. The office of priest as King tends to be the one that causes me the most headaches and heartaches. Part of it has to do with understanding what it means. We don’t always have a good impression of the term “King.” As you’re aware, we don’t have royalty in this country because we threw them out at our foundation. And, when we try to compare the King to our president, we notice some pretty striking differences. For instance, a king isn’t chosen by the people like a president is and a King is supposed to avoid divisive party politics in favor of what’s best for his people. Personally, I like the connection with the office of king with the title of pastor or shepherd. As your pastor, it’s my responsibility to lead the sheep. Sometimes the sheep don’t want to go in a certain way and sometimes they resent when I make a decision they don’t agree with, especially when it’s something dealing with money. But it’s my job to always make sure that any given parish is making financial decisions more on the basis of what God wants than any selfish motivation they may have.

You may be wondering what any of this has to do with lepers and, I’ll admit, very little. During my preparation for this homily, I really felt like our hearts were focused on the second reading from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In it, St. Paul was articulating his priestly role in three powerful ways. He begins by stating that whatever we do, we should do it for the glory of God. When we’re watching TV, do we do it for the glory of God? When we go watch a movie, do we do it for the glory of God? When it’s late at night and we’re alone with our computers, are we acting in a way that gives glory to God? God has given us so much glory in creating us in his divine image and giving us his son to be our savior. We should give God glory in all parts of our life. Next, St. Paul says that we should please everyone in every way, not seeking our own benefit but that of the many. Fr. Robert Barron will talk about sin as a spiritual curvature of the spine in which the sinner is always concerned about his own needs and wants. If we put our focus on giving glory to God, it means focusing on the needs of others and trying to reach out to them in love and undoing the curvature of our sinful spiritual spines. Lastly, St. Paul tells us that, if we put our focus on giving glory to God and reaching out to others, we will be an example that will inspire others to holiness. In my opinion, this is the best form of evangelization! If we live our lives giving glory to God and caring for the needs of others, people will see our good deeds and come to faith through them.

We are just a few days away from beginning the Lenten season. In my opinion, lent is about exercising the priestly role of Christ in our daily life. Don’t get me wrong, we are encouraged to grow in the holiness of Christ the high priest and continue to speak out in a prophetic way during Lent. Nonetheless, I feel like we often know what we need to do to grow in holiness but we lack the commitment to actually do it. Lent is our opportunity to put our nose down and get the job done. As we enter into this great season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, let’s put our focus in giving glory to God by reaching out to those in need and being an example of holiness for others.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

January 22, 2015

Sorry for the absence. I'm still working to get these little updates into my regular schedule of life. I want to talk a little bit about yesterday and then I'll write about today later on. It was Wednesday, which means I do not have a morning Mass so I worked on other things before I celebrated an evening Mass in Lake Mills. Then, I drove to Britt where I heard confessions for some students there. Here's my dilemma: I am very conflicted with hearing confession for students at Faith Formation. I think it ties a sacrament that is ongoing and life-long to religious education classes which end (at best) at graduation. And, in general, it forces people who may not be prepared spiritually or psychologically for confession, to go because your catechist says it's time. First of all, it should be the parents who bring their kids to confession not the catechists because the parents should be attending the sacrament with their kids. After all, in some ways, we need the sacrament of reconciliation more as adults than we do when we are in school because we are incredibly aware of our faults in middle school and high school through parents, teachers, coaches, tests, peers, etc. but can become incredibly unaware of our faults as adults. Secondly, I know that people believe that students who go to confession will translate into adults who go to confession. However, that's not happening. There are many times throughout the week that I sit alone in a confessional waiting for someone to come in to be relieved of their sins.

Most of the time, a kid learns how to behave in church more from their parents than from any priest or catechist. If they don't see their parents go to church or to confession, then they think that it's unimportant and I don't think that bringing a kid to confession once a year is going to reverse that. Still, I hear faith formation confessions because I don't know what the alternative is. If there's one thing we have learned from the reaction to Vatican II, it is that replacing something that we don't think is working (the rosary, adoration, novenas, 30 hours, etc) with nothing is really bad for the basic spiritual formation of the people of God. So, until it's clear what we should do differently, I sit in a confessional and and am stoned to death with the cotton balls of grade school confession. And, who knows? Maybe three minutes of honesty will translate for at least one kid into a life-long commitment to confession.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vocation to a life of joy - 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time year B

This past weekend in my homily, I talked about some of the negative reactions I've got when I've suggested someone has a vocation to priesthood. I talked about how that's understandable because of the negative impressions people have of priesthood, both those caused by sexual abuse and angry priests and those caused by the perception that the only way to lead a happy life is by having sex. I then talked about the first four chapters of Samuel. If you haven't read these chapters, please do so. They're great. It's a story of contrasts between Hannah and Eli. Hannah is faithful to God. She is mocked by her husband's other wife because she seems to be barren but, when she promises to dedicated her first-born to God, she doesn't react like a person scorn. She offers her son Samuel to the service of the priest, Eli. Eli, on the other hand, seems like a faithful person but has managed to appoint his power-hungry sons, Phineas and Hophni, to positions of power, He is not a good shepherd. That's why chapter 3 is so complex. It says that the Word of the Lord was was scarce and vision infrequent. Why? What were Phineas and Hophni and Eli doing if not listening to and preaching the Word of the Lord? We know from chapter 2 that Phineas and Hophni were busy stealing from the best sacrifices and making sure their bellies were full and possibly meeting women at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. They were worried about their comfort more than the will of God. I contrasted that with Samuel who was told during his calling that his first job was to tell Eli that his time has come to an end as the priest and that he and his sons would die.

All too often, we think our goal in life is to be happy. But, a true vocation has moments of happiness and frustration. It has moments that test our patience and moments of testing our abilities. It has moments of being yelled at and moments of failure. But, it is still joyful amidst all this. We have to think more in the long run than in the immediate, short-term. Is it worth the sadness and frustration and anger? I think being able to give people the body and blood of Christ and telling them that their sins are forgiven is incredibly joyful. I think helping people say goodbye to a dead relative and helping them welcome a new baby is joyful. It's not always happy but I can guarantee you that anything worth doing is both challenging and joyful.