“God is in the City”: the Pope’s Message in New York

The doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral right after the Pope's departure. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]
The doors of St. Patrick’s Cathedral right after the Pope’s departure. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]

The visit of a Roman Pontiff to the cultural capital of the modern world is no small affair. For both days of his time in New York, the city’s colossal network of organizational machinery shifted to accommodate his schedule, and everyone from the Bronx to Staten Island was affected in one way or another. Every gun-carrying government agency was out in full-force to provide security. Wherever the Pope went, helicopters flew overhead and police snipers manned the roofs along his route. Secret servicemen surrounded every papal location and SWAT teams were on full alert. Bomb-detecting canines sniffed every nook and cranny.

Streets were closed, bus routes were changed, and traffic was re-routed, but from what I can tell, people hardly complained (and for New Yorkers, that’s saying a lot!).  The city was not only honored but thrilled to host His Holiness, and the atmosphere was charged with expectation and excitement.

The Pope’s Fatherly Presence

Pope Francis brought his paternal love to a city in desperate need of it. New York is a wonderful place, but it is also a city in need of deep spiritual healing.  Like any city, it is full of loneliness and isolation. Although it is full of amazing success stories, it is also full of human failure, both spiritual and material. It is a place that can easily lead people to equate self-worth with dollar signs and personal appearance, with disastrous effects. It is a city that is still recovering from the horrendous 9/11 attacks, the wounds of which will take generations to fully heal.

Pope Francis walking down the center aisle of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]

Pope Francis’ fatherly presence touched the hearts of the people of this metropolis, and I saw this happening both at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Madison Square Garden. The most powerful moment for me was during his homily at the Garden when he said the following words and received a long, loud ovation:

“Knowing that Jesus still walks our streets, that he is part of the lives of his people, that he is involved with us in one vast history of salvation, fills us with hope. A hope which liberates us from the forces pushing us to isolation and lack of concern for the lives of others, for the life of our city…A hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city. Because God is in the city. [Emphasis added.]

God is Not Afraid of Smog

New Yorkers responded so enthusiastically to this simple message because they desperately wanted and needed to hear it. They needed to be reminded that God, their Father, is with them. New York, like any other city, is a place full of “smog,” both literal and metaphorical, and living such a place can lead to negative view of life, the world, and one’s self.

The arena of Madison Square Garden shortly before the papal mass. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]
The arena of Madison Square Garden shortly before the papal mass. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]

The Pope’s message of hope reminded New Yorkers that they are deeply loved, that even though they may be cynical about the world and themselves, God is not cynical about them. God loves them whether they are rich or poor, good-looking or not. Pope Francis reminded them with his warm smile and kind words that God loves them so much that He is not afraid to live in the midst of their “smog” in order to be with them. He reminded them that this city, despite all contrary appearances, is not godless at all, but that God is indeed here in their midst.

A Message for All of Us

This message is equally relevant for New Yorkers and non-New Yorkers alike. Whether we like it or not, we all inhabit the virtual “city” that the world has become, and we are all inundated by its spiritual smog, but this does not make us any less loved by our heavenly Father. He knows our struggle.

A view of St. Patrick's Cathedral. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]
A view of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. [Photo credit: Fr. Jason Smith, LC]

On a personal level,  I found great hope and encouragement in the Pope’s message. The Pope motivated and re-energized me to keep going strong as I begin my new ministry in my new home: New York City. I look forward to following his example as a priest by being a spiritual father dedicated to reminding New Yorkers that Jesus is truly in their midst.

A special thanks to my good friend, Fr. Jason Smith for his photography. For more of his inspirational and creative photos, be sure to follow him on Instagram!

Fr. Jason and I: it was t


Pope Francis at the White House Calls for Defense of Religious Freedom

It was good to see Pope Francis at the White House earlier this morning addressing our nation in English and ending his speech with a hearty “God bless America!”

America is indeed blessed to have the Pontiff with us in these days, and it is important that we pay close attention to what he has to say in order to take advantage of the wisdom that he has to offer us. His speech on the White House lawn did not contain any surprises – he spoke about immigration and climate change, as expected – but I would like to highlight what he had to say about religious freedom:

[Religious] freedom remains one of America’s most precious possessions. And, as my brothers, the United States Bishops, have reminded us, all are called to be vigilant, precisely as good citizens, to preserve and defend that freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it. [Emphasis added.]

We should not skip over the significance of these lines, especially since it is not hard to read between them. The most recent call to the defense of religious liberty made by the USCCB (US Conference of Catholic Bishops) was shortly after the Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate that employers provide insurance that covers contraception and abortifacients. The Pope’s reference to the bishops’ statement is, in my opinion, a subtle but clear admonition for the President and all of those behind the HHS mandate’s infringement on religious freedom.

Currently, the Little Sisters of the Poor are fighting against the HHS mandate to freely live according to their faith in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. The Pope’s citation of the American bishops’ letter speaking out against the same mandate (which has pressured the Little Sisters and others to act contrary to the Catholic faith) was his diplomatic way of reminding the President and the American people that such laws are unacceptable. We have to “defend [religious] freedom from everything that would threaten or compromise it” – even from our own government.

It is very significant that the Pope referenced the American bishops’  defense of religious liberty, and I think that the Pope, speaking as a pastor and international spiritual leader, will have more to say to us Americans that may not be comfortable for everyone to hear. It will be interesting to see what he was to say at the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia this weekend, especially in light of the biggest attack on the family since Roe v. Wade: the Obergefell decision.

Pope Francis in America

I just finished watching on TV the Pope’s arrival at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, and I have to say that I am very excited about the week to come! All of the seminarians and faculty of St. Joseph’s Seminary will be attending vespers with Pope Francis at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Thursday evening and mass with him at Madison Square Garden on Friday evening.

Having been blessed to watch his pontificate from the very beginning in Rome, I am all the more grateful to be able to see him here on the other side of the Atlantic. This is his first visit to the USA, and I think that it will be a very important one for the entire nation, and also for him.

His visit is important for us, because we desperately need to hear his message of mercy and hope. But it’s also important because it’s not always easy for us Americans to understand where he is coming from on certain issues, such as capitalism and immigration. It will be helpful to listen to his perspective in our own language (4 of his 18 speeches will be in English) and to see him in our own context.

I do think that it will be also very helpful for him to see first-hand the reality of America and the American Church. As a worldwide leader, one of his biggest challenges is communicating in a way that makes sense to everyone, so it is very good that he has this opportunity spend almost an entire week with this important part of the universal Church.

I look forward to sharing with you a front-line perspective of the Pope’s visit to New York City on Thursday and Friday, so stay tuned!

For the Pope’s full schedule in America, click here.

Seeing Jim Gaffigan

Jim Gaffigan is one of my favorite comedians, so when I heard that he would be making an appearance with his wife at the Sheen Center for Thought and Culture, I jumped at the opportunity to go. Jim and Jeannie are a very creative couple who have co-written and produced The Jim Gaffigan Show that airs on TVLand Wednesday nights at 10:00 pm.

The Jim Gaffigan Show is a sitcom based on Jim’s actual life: he plays himself, a comedian with a wife and five kids living in a two-bedroom apartment in Lower Manhattan.  The humor revolves around his affinity for food and the challenge of running a large family in New York City.

What I find so refreshing about the show is Jim’s openness about his Catholic faith. Since it is a big part of his real life, he does not attempt to hide it or suppress it. In fact, it comes up in almost every episode: Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral (his actual parish church) and “Fr. Nicholas” (his fictional parish priest) make frequent appearances.

As Jim and Jeannie shared with us on Tuesday night, although the show is fictional, each episode deals with issues that they have had to face in real-life. For example, the challenge of living his faith comes up in one episode called “The Bible Story,” when Jim is asked by his wife to pick up a Bible at their church on his way to a stand-up show. He reluctantly agrees, but comes to regret his decision when it turns out to be a massive coffee-table-size Bible that is conspicuously evident as he walks into the comedy club. When a picture of him with the Bible is published in the Huffington Post, it sparks a controversy about Jim’s religious beliefs, leading to him being branded as a “gay-hater” and “Bible-thumper.”

The episode artfully satirizes the all-too-frequent ridiculousness of contemporary discourse on the role of religion, but it also touches on a very really issue for Jim who in real-life has had to come to terms with the role of religion in his comedy. At the risk of being negatively and unfairly branded as a religious fanatic, he has not shied away from making his faith a part of his craft just as he does with the other aspects of his life.

Jim mentioned that the key to doing this without turning people off is to do so naturally. He just assumes that everyone knows and accepts the fact that he is Catholic, and he allows his faith to surface in his humor when it fits and adds to the quality of his show. The jokes he makes about the Catholicism are always tasteful and never irreverent, since he makes fun of legitimately funny Catholic quirks.

Christ told us “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Jim and Jeannie are a great example of how to be simple yet shrewd in the hyper-secular world of today. The two of them combined make a fabulous creative team, and they both possess the savvy and shrewdness necessary to launch a successful sitcom on a major television network. Nevertheless, they have remained simple in regards to their faith: they embrace it just as it is without regret or complications. They simply live what they believe and allow it to be a part of their art because it is so much a part of who they are as persons.

Keep an eye out for Jim on TV next weekend. He will be performing for Pope Francis and hundreds of thousands of people during the papal visit to Philadelphia. Quite a gig!

Epic Art: A Marvelous Fresco of an Amazing Monk

During my time in the guesthouse of Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia, I was invited by the abbot to join the monks for their daily hour of conversation. After vespers, I was escorted to their common room, and on the way I caught sight of a magnificent fresco on the other side of the cloister. I was so taken by it, I decided that one way or another, I would get a second look.

Fr. Dunstan Massey, O.S.B. with his fresco.
Fr. Dunstan Massey, O.S.B. with his fresco.

As soon as I could the following day, I went back to the fresco to study it more closely. It was truly a beautiful work. The style was was surrealist and clearly influenced by Salvador Dalí, but it was nevertheless a very original work charged with rich symbolism and profound meaning.

It is an iconic portrayal of St. Benedict, the founder of Western Monasticism. He stands as a patriarchal figure, with arms outstretched in a gesture of praise that brings our eyes heavenward, just as his entire life, dedicated to divine contemplation and worship, was a continual invitation to his fellow man to raise their hearts and minds to God.

Directly below him is a younger version of himself struggling withIMG_1379 (2) temptation depicted as a serpent-headed vine of thorns. He arises from the spiritual battle as a new man, freed from the slavery of evil and touching the Eucharistic host from which he drew his strength.

The barren landscape behind St. Benedict evokes the desert where hermits have gone for centuries to flee the world and seek closer communion with God. In the wilderness, living with the daily possibility of death, the solitary man of God disciplined himself to always seek the things above.

IMG_1379St. Benedict embraced this austere lifestyle when he was but a boy, leaving the chaos of Rome to live in a cave in the Apennine Mountains. He chose a place that has come to be known as Subiaco, and the beginning of his hermetic life is symbolized on the right side of the painting where we see a cliff labeled “Sub Lacum” (the Latin from which “Subiaco” is derived). A spring of water flows down its side in remembrance of the one that sprang forth miraculously after he spent a night in vigil.

On the left side of the fresco, we see Monte Cassino, where St. Benedict founded his most important monasteryIMG_1379.  In the Roman ruins of Casinum, St. Benedict began a monastic movement that would help preserve the best of Western culture through the dark centuries that followed the fall of the Empire.

The entire fresco, which was done around the fifteenth centenary of St. Benedict’s birth, is a memorial to the huge impact that he had on the shaping of European culture. Fr. Dustan Massey, the creator of the fresco, sums up  the unexpected scope of the Benedictine influence:

Alone in his cave, the young Benedict knew nothing of what he would become – “The Father of Europe”; nothing of those thousands of monasteries springing up in the dark and middle ages. When, some forty years later, he prescribed the reading of books, he could scarcely imagine the numberless scribes copying God’s word, and the wisdom of the ancient world, nor the schools that would arise, or the universities that would grow out of them. Nor is it likely he could have foreseen the succession of choirs in the great Cluniac houses, chanting both day and night the divine praises, to which, in the Rule, he allows nothing to be preferred. As a boy hermit, he knew nothing of the missionary monks sent into alien cultures at the risk of martyrdom, nor of those wayside houses that became hospitable places of refuge for the sick, the poor, and the pilgrims, nor of Abbots in distant lands who became Bishops, builders of cathedrals and counselors of Kings. 

IMG_1379 (1)

This epic fresco invites us to contemplate the incredible impact that one individual can have on future generations. When one sincerely seeks God above all else, the range of his influence can exceed the wildest expectations.

To learn more about Fr. Dustan Massey and his art, click here.

Ora et Labora: Finding Peace at a Benedictine Monastery

Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia.
Westminster Abbey in Mission, British Columbia.

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to do a retreat at a Benedictine monastery on a hill with a stunning view of the Fraser River Valley in southern British Columbia. There are fifty monks currently in residence; some of them are older and some of them are younger, but they all live the way Benedictines have been living for centuries, following the age-old dictum of their order: ora et labora (“pray and work”). Five times a day, their bell tolls and they all silently make their way to the chapel where they chant the Psalms, joining their voices to the eternal praises of the angels in Heaven.

When they are not praying in community, they are fulfilling their duties in running their monastery. Some work the farm and care for their beef cattle, while others run the major and minor seminaries that are attached to the abbey. Some work in the kitchen, others in maintenance, and others in the sacristy. Some of the monks are expert scholars and one is even a renowned artist, but all follow the same schedule and share equally in the community’s labors.

A view of the Fraser River Valley from the Abbey.
A view of the Fraser River Valley looking east from the abbey.

The life of a monk is one that is lived on the threshold of Heaven and Earth. When he is praying, the monk directs his attention entirely to God and the things of above; when he is working, he remains in communion with God, but he turns his attention to the Earth and seeks to sanctify and cultivate it by the work of his hands, ordering it in accordance with God’s Will. The Benedictine monk has no worldly ambitions; rather, he lives a simple and content life on a hill-top monastery, cultivating and sanctifying the small corner of the world to which God has called him.

An Invaluable Lesson

When I was at the abbey, I experienced the monks’ life, and I loved it. I loved the soft mellow cadence of their chant and the steady rhythm of their daily schedule. I loved the simplicity of their lifestyle and the spiritual freedom that it engenders. I relished my time with them, realizing that before long I would be back in New York City, far away from their haven of peace and quiet. The abbey was my Rivendell, a final resting place before going on to face new and unknown challenges.

The monastery chapel during vespers.
The abbey chapel during vespers.

I now find myself in the northeast Bronx, far away from the tranquility of southern British Columbia. Instead of chirping birds and tolling bells, my daily background noise is the never-ending drone of traffic on I-95 and the roaring of jets landing at LaGuardia. However, despite my new surroundings, which may not seem conducive to serenity, the peace that I found at the abbey still remains with me thanks to an idea that came to me while I was there: no matter where you find yourself, you can always live on the threshold between Heaven and Earth. You can always live in God’s presence, because doing so is part of being Christian.

I may not be living in a Benedictine hill-top monastery (although my parish is named after St. Benedict!), but God has given me my own corner of the world in which he is calling me to help sanctify with my prayer and work. I may not be chanting the Psalms daily in community, but I will be raising my heart and mind to God every time I attend mass or privately pray the Liturgy of the Hours. I may not be tilling the soil or engaging in other forms of monastic manual labor, but I nevertheless will be  working daily in my new parish assignment to bring our neighborhood closer to God. Whether I am teaching religious education, visiting shut-ins, or studying Scripture, I will be doing my small part to sanctify this small corner of  New York City where God has called me to live this upcoming year.

A Lesson for Us All

The lesson I learned with the monks is something we can all benefitimage from: peace comes when we accept our Christian calling to live on the threshold of Heaven and Earth. Peace comes when, instead of being consumed by worldly ambitions, we live with eyes set on Heaven and seek to sanctify our respective corners of the world with our daily work and prayer. 

Your corner of the world is the neighborhood where you live, the job you have, and the family you are in. You sanctify your corner of the world by praying for the people God has put with you and working to bring them closer to God through the charity and responsibility with which you carry out your duties.

Very few of us are called to be monks, but we are all called to peace, a peace that comes through lives that are full of God-centered work and silent prayer: ora et labora.