After finishing my year of pastoral work at St. Benedict’s in the Bronx, I have been assigned by Cardinal Dolan to do a 10-week internship the parish of St. Lawrence O’Toole in Brewster, NY.
Brewster is a small village of about 2,300 inhabitants located in the woody hills of southeastern Putnam County. Known as “The Hub of the Harlem Valley,” Brewster is located within 1/2 square mile and is the second-to-last train stop on the Harlem Line.
Over half of the population is Latino, and many of them are day laborers. In the 2010 census, Brewster came out to have the highest concentration of Guatemalans in the entire country: they make up almost 40% of the village population.
I am looking forward to spending several weeks in this quiet part of the Archdiocese’s “upper counties”. After so much time in the city, it’s nice to be somewhere where you can hear the birds chirping.
I am also looking forward to getting hands-on experience at St. Lawrence O’Toole, which is known throughout the Archdiocese as a vibrant parish that attracts people from all over, thanks to innovative work of the pastor Fr. Richard Gill. I was able to introduce myself at each of the seven masses on Sunday, and was welcomed warmly by the parishioners.
The parish has lots of activities, and there is plenty of work for me to do. It beginning to look like it will be a busy and interesting summer. Stay tuned!
Caravaggio’s masterpiece The Calling of Saint Matthew captures the birth of a vocation and an encounter between God and man. It reveals a dramatic moment in which two persons meet and two separate worlds converge. With his characteristic realism, he visualizes a spiritual event and portrays the dynamism of a personal epiphany.
Matthew, absorbed in his world of money and friends, is caught off guard. A ray of light illuminates the features of his surprised face. He points towards himself to inquire if he is really the one being addressed by Christ. He leans away from Jesus, but his legs seem poised to get up and move towards him. We see tension and surprise before an unexpected and radical invitation.
This is a watershed moment in which Matthew’s life teeters between two possibilities. He must make a decision either to continue clinging to his money or to follow the beckoning Galilean. He is a tax collector; up until this point, his life has been centered on money. A coin is stuck conspicuously in his hat, symbolizing the privileged place that money holds in his thoughts. With his right hand, he reaches for coins. If Matthew decides to heed the call of the austerely dressed Christ, he is going to have to give up something that has become central to his very identity.
There is another element in his life opposed to the possibility of him following Christ: his friends. They surround him and lean on him, almost protectively, forming a barrier between him and the uninvited visitor. The young man with the sword is about to get up from his stool, leaning towards Peter in a mildly aggressive manner. To follow Christ, Matthew will have to extricate himself not only from his internal attachment to money, but also from the external pressure of his friends.
The men in the left of the painting are a reminder of Matthew’s past — and of his possible future. They are hunched over their coins, completely oblivious to Christ. Their opportunity for a new, more meaningful life fades away as they continue counting silver. If Matthew does not respond to Christ, he will remain a sad miser like them.
Christ and Peter stand in stark contrast to Matthew and his companions. Their bare feet and simple clothing clash with the flamboyant colors of the tax collectors’ fashionable, 17th-century attire. Peter’s walking staff indicates their itinerant status: They are always on the move with no place to lay their heads. If Matthew follows Christ, it will not be easy. He will have to leave behind his luxurious lifestyle, stable income and even the benefit of proper footwear if he is going to be counted among the followers of this poor yet captivating man.
Christ’s Holiness vs. Matthew’s Worldliness
The contrast between Christ’s holiness and Matthew’s worldliness reflects contrasting elements of the artist’s life. Although his works depict saints and communicate profound spiritual realities, Caravaggio himself was far from angelic. His short life (1571 – 1610) was a paradox of great success and self-inflicted failure. Despite the popularity that he enjoyed among the Roman elite, time and time again his nasty temper and rowdy night life landed him in courts and jails. His misdemeanors ranged from consorting with prostitutes to throwing artichokes at a waiter. But the climax of his crimes occurred in 1606: he murdered a man in a violent duel. Forced to flee Rome, Caravaggio died of a fever four years later after a series of unfortunate events, much to the glee of his enemies and the sorrow of his admirers.
In the painting, Christ did not hold himself aloof from the worldly Matthew, but takes the initiative to approach him personally. God works through weak instruments. Like the rays of light in a typical Caravaggio work, God shines through the weakness of human nature and uses flawed individuals to communicate his own goodness to the world. He used a troubled artist to create beautiful, spiritual paintings that 400 years later do not cease to inspire and awe. He used a sinful tax collector to write his Gospel.
Matthew has to make a decision soon because Christ is on his way out the door. Even as he calls Matthew, he is stepping away from the table, adding a sense of urgency to the moment. Christ is calling, but not waiting. His left hand is open and motions in the direction he is going, and his right hand points dramatically towards Matthew.
In addition to the personal call of Matthew, this painting has a deeper meaning. It illustrates the new relationship between God and man made possible by Jesus Christ. Before the coming of Christ, there existed an infinite abyss between the Creator and humanity. It was traversable only by someone who was a part of both worlds, i.e. a God-Man. Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, bridges this gap. A space of darkness, situated between Christ’s group and Matthew’s group, symbolizes this great divide. The darkness is bridged by the extended hand of Christ, the Light of the World.
Christ’s right hand is held very much like the hand of Adam in Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Ceiling.
However, it points in a direction different from that of Adam’s: from right to left, just as the hand of Michelangelo’s God the Father. This combination illustrates Christ’s two natures. He is man, the perfect man, the New Adam. But he is also God, consubstantial with the Father. What Christ is doing in this painting is analogous to the creative action of God the Father. In Michelangelo’s work, God the Father is about to give life to the physically inert body of Adam. In Caravaggio’s work, Christ is about to give spiritual life to the spiritually empty Matthew. He is about to elevate him from his superficial tax-collecting existence to the fulfilling life of an apostle.
This masterpiece is also an iconic depiction of the human-divine encounter that takes place in every priestly vocation. When God reaches out to the called man, there is always a moment of decision such as this: Christ unexpectedly breaks into his life and he discovers, in an overwhelming instant of revelation, that Jesus desires him. This realization is often followed by the tension shown in “The Calling of Saint Matthew”: the call of the divine and the pull of the mundane; the beckoning of a new Friend and the clinging of old friends; the freedom of poverty and the slavery of greed; the comfort of daily routine and the adventure of following Christ. The called man finds himself in the middle of a tug-of-war that only he can end. If he responds like Matthew, he will find what Matthew found: the exhilarating joy of following Christ.
There is lots of activity here around my new home in the southeast Bronx. A century ago, one would have found farmland and manors on this little peninsula of Throggs Neck, but those have long since been replaced with tightly packed bungalows and the odd apartment building. Half a century ago, no highway came close to here, but now it is framed by four, two of which lead to the Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges to Long Island. On top of that, we are squarely situated right underneath the flight path to the airport, so if you are ever flying into LaGuardia, be sure to look out the window and wave as you descend, because chances are I will see your plane – I certainly will be hearing it!
In the midst of the hustle and bustle of this corner of New York City, my new home stands on an island in the midst of interstates. St. Benedict’s Catholic Church was built by the Benedictine order several decades ago, and just as their monasteries overlook river valleys in quieter parts of the world, this one-time monastic home overlooks I-95. There are no longer monks living here (the Archdiocese of New York took it over for the Benedictines about 30 years ago), but I like to think of this piece of property as my own “urban monastery.” Just as monks used to work and pray here, so am I settling into a simple and peaceful routine of ora et labora.
A Typical Day
My day begins early: I like to wake up in time to do an hour of personal prayer before daily mass at 6:45 am, which is well attended by folks on their way to work. Although it is short, it is a brief moment of communion and prayer as we all prepare to take on our respective days. After being strengthened by the Body and Blood of Our Lord, we all disperse into the City, ready to take on the world.
After mass, I have breakfast in the rectory, during which I read the Wall Street Journal and catch up on the news. Following breakfast, I battle my way north on the Hutchison Parkway to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. There is usually always some traffic congestion, so I have to give myself 45 minutes in order to make it on time for moral theology class.
After class, I study for an hour or two in Archbishop Corrigan Memorial Library before going to the refectory for lunch. Following lunch, I hit the road again to get back to the parish where I spend the afternoon working on projects, writing, and answering e-mails.
The three priests of the parish and I usually have dinner together around 6 pm. After dinner, I work a little longer before praying the rosary and vespers. Following vespers, I spend about and hour reading and studying before going to bed between 9:30 and 10:00 pm.
Being Happy with a Simple Life
While I am certainly taking advantage of being in the city to re-connect with friends, I am learning to love the normal days in my “urban monastery” as much as the days when I am out and about. My time in a religious order has helped me to appreciate a peaceful rhythm of life. Routine and stability are blessings since they free us from distractions and make our hearts more attentive to the promptings and inspirations of the Spirit.
This is one of the reasons why I have decided to keep things simple. As a writer, and as someone preparing to be a spiritual father and a leader of souls, I feel that I need to keep unnecessary noise out of my life. For that reason, I have decided not to play video games, and to only watch a little TV on the weekend. These things are not bad in themselves, I have found that I need to limit my information input. Less unnecessary noise frees me to focus on “the things above” and ponder what God wants me do, say, and write.
A Thought for the Week
We are not all called to be monks, but as Christians, we are called to be the light of the world. To truly shine forth, we need to set aside time to be quiet and let God shine on us. According to your personality and situation in life, try to set aside one or two quiet evenings. (Sunday night is always a good choice.) Instead of watching TV, pour yourself a cup of tea, make yourself comfortable, and read a book. If you are the more active type of person, find a quiet project that you can do: put together a puzzle or play an instrument. Whatever the case, the important thing is to create a moment when you can relax and be at peace. These are the moments when God speaks.
It’s back to school! Following a summer spent in the Mountain West, I find myself beginning my new life in New York, the first weeks of which are taking place at the beautiful St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, just north of New York City.
The building itself is an inspiring sight. It was built in 1896 and has the impressive, stately look that was common to all respectable institutions of the time. The interior echoes with the generations of priests who have been trained here at what was once known as “the West Point for priests”: class photographs from as far back as 1897 line the main hall, busts of popes and prominent American churchmen gaze at passersby, and portraits of past rectors adorn the refectory. Marble columns frame the main lobby and ornate wood-iron banisters flank the stairwells.
The stateliness and nobility of the seminary’s architecture and decor invite the seminarian to remember the solemn and transcendent vocation for which he is preparing himself. This is especially true in the chapel, which is a gem of liturgical beauty. Oaken seats are arranged in choir fashion for the community recitation of the liturgy of the hours, and beautiful London-made stained glass windows depict scenes from the life of Christ. An exquisite mosaic over the sanctuary shows Christ the High Priest, the One with whom we seminarians will be sacramentally configured when ordained into his presbyterate.
The first thing in the chapel that caught my attention was the Latin inscription that is at the base of the copula, directly over the sanctuary: Tu es sacerdos in aeternum (“You are a priest forever”).
I have read and heard this quote from Psalm 110 hundreds of times, but there are moments when the Word of God strikes me in a new and powerful way, which is what happened when I saw those words for the first time in the chapel.
I have been traveling towards the priesthood for quite some time, fifteen years to be exact, and I still have four years to go. When I first started, I knew it would be a long process, but I did not expect it to be quite so long. There have been many unexpected twists and turns on my journey towards the priesthood, and these have been disconcerting at times. However, in the midst of the vicissitudes that life has thrown at me, God has reminded me time and time again that from all eternity he has called me to be his priest.
As I gazed at the excerpt from the Psalms from my new place in the choir seats, I felt that the Word of God was speaking to me directly and personally, and a great new peace came over me. I pondered the entire quote:
The LORD has sworn and will not waver: “You are a priest forever in the manner of Melchizedek.” – Psalm 110:4
I have yet to be ordained, but I know that my vocation comes from and is directed towards the eternal God. My journey to the priesthood has taken longer than expected, but, as my father told me recently, four more years really pale in comparison to eternity!
I hope that you do not mind me sharing this personal reflection with you, but I think it points to something that is common to all of our vocations: circumstances change, but God’s call does not. No matter what life throws at us, nothing escapes God’s providential plan for each of us. It is often precisely when life does not go our way that awesome things happen. From all eternity, God has called each of us to do something unique and beautiful, and he will not change his mind because “The LORD has sworn and he will not repent.”
Greetings! I hope that you have had a restful summer. Mine has been very eventful, but before I begin writing posts about my summer experiences, I would like to dedicate this one to sharing with you about my new situation and the new context from which I will be writing to you weekly.
Most of my posts last year were written from the beautiful city of Rome, but this year, I will be writing from an entirely different metropolis: New York City!
That’s right! After much thought and prayer, I decided last spring to make a lateral move from the Legionaries of Christ (with whom I was studying in Rome) to the Archdiocese of New York. I have been accepted officially as a seminarian of the Archdiocese and will complete the last four years of my priestly formation with them. I am very much looking forward to serving the Church in this great city where I lived before my time in Rome.
This next year will be a unique one for me. While attending moral theology classes at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, just north of the city, I will be living and working at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in the Bronx borough of New York City doing a “pastoral year.” During this pastoral year, I will be working closely with the pastor to learn first-hand how to be a parish priest and I will be involved in the parish life.
Following my pastoral year, I will live full-time at the seminary, completing the last three years of studies for a bachelor’s degree in theology. God-willing, I will be ordained to the diaconate in 2018 and to the priesthood in 2019.
I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to all of my formators and friends in the Legionaries of Christ. My years with them were unforgettable and enriching, and I would not exchange them for anything in the world. I look forward to collaborating with them as a diocesan priest in serving the Church and extending the Kingdom of Christ.
I am very excited to see what the Holy Spirit has in store here in New York City. Stay tuned to see what happens!