The Holocaust and Forgiveness

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (February 19, 2017)

Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18

Psalm 103:1-2,3-4,8,10,12-13

1 Corinthians 3:16-23

Matthew 5:38-48

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” This could very well be one of the toughest actions Jesus teaches us to do.

About a month ago, I was able to see this teaching in real life in an extremely graphic way. Along with others from St. Andrew’s, I went on a pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. as part of the March For Life trip this past January. During the pilgrimage, our group was able to tour the Holocaust Museum. It contained four floors of photos, images, videos and actual items that were used during the Holocaust. The museum tells the story beginning with the uprising of the Nazi Party and all of their propaganda, to the rounding up of the innocent victims, to the death camps, to the eventual liberation of the prisoners after the defeat of the Nazi’s. It paints a vivid picture of what hate and persecution looks like in real life.

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Before going to the Holocaust Museum, I previously read stories of people who had survived the concentration camps. I knew the history and how much evil went on there. I even remember hearing a survival story straight from the mouth of a Jewish survivor when I was in middle school. But standing in the midst of the Holocaust Museum, surrounded by all of the memorabilia, it just seemed… I don’t know…thick with heartbreak and unimaginable agony. Literally… hell on earth.

It especially took my breath away when I entered a room that contained hundreds of pairs of shoes piled up on either side of the room. You see, the Nazi’s didn’t like to waste material goods. So before they killed prisoners in the gas chambers, they would strip them naked and either sell their clothes for profit or reuse them. A quote on the wall of the shoe room reads, “We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses. We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers from Prague, Paris and Amsterdam. And because we are only made of fabric and leather and not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.”

As I stood in that room, I couldn’t help but wonder how in the world does one who lived through this nightmare firsthand ever get over it? Furthermore, how does one forgive anyone who willingly participated in these evil events?

I bring up the Holocaust as an extreme example of what hate and evil can turn into. Many of us, thankfully, won’t have to deal with persecution to that extreme. But if there’s even one story of healing or forgiveness that comes from this pit of Hell, then I believe it can help us put our own personal struggles into a better perspective and give us the courage to overcome them.

I came across such a story last week about a Hungarian Jewish woman who was a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Her name is Eva Kor. In April of 2015, Eva traveled to Germany to give evidence and testify against a former SS Sergeant named Oskar Groening. Oskar was accused and later found guilty of being complicit in the murder of 300,000 people at Auschwitz (including Eva’s father, mother and two older sisters). In the courtroom, Eva approached Oskar and publicly forgave him for the sins he committed against her family and then shocked everyone when she embraced him with a hug. When Eva was asked how she could have possibly forgiven such a man, she replied, “Why survive at all if all you want to be is sad, angry and hurting? That is so foreign to who I am. I don’t understand why the world is so much more willing to accept lashing out in anger rather than embracing friendship and humanity” (www.telegraph.co.uk, 20 Jan 2016, “Why I forgive the Nazis who murdered my family” by Joe Shute).

This strong woman, lived out what Jesus says in today’s Gospel, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” By our human standards, Eva had every right to curse, spit on and assault that man. But she chose differently; she chose a better way. A way that lead to the healing of her own soul. This Jewish lady was living out a core Christian teaching that many of us Christians, all to often, chose to ignore.

I am 100%, fully aware with how hard it is to pray for people you don’t like. I am also 100%, fully aware of how hard it is to forgive people who have persecuted you or committed a hurtful act against you. But do you realize how much damage you will continue to cause in your own life, to your own soul, if you cling to the hate?? When you attach yourself to hate, it will eventually overflow into other areas of your life. That will eventually spill out on relationships that you thought were good. Before you know it, your stubbornness to forgive has lowered your quality of life and those around you as well. It quietly consumes your soul.

Remember, Jesus didn’t say, “Come and follow me for I will show you an easier way.” He did, however, offer to show us a “better” way. He wants you to be happy. He wants your soul to shine. Praying for those frustrating people in your life, forgiving those who have wronged you, not lashing out in anger… these are the things Jesus Christ asks us to do.

As I’ve said many, many times before… our time on this earth is temporary. So don’t be tempted to harbor anger and hate in your soul during your short, mortal life. Focus instead on the eternal love waiting for you in heaven.

Forgive often. Pray constantly. Love always.

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March For Life 2016

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (January 31, 2016)

Jeremiah 1:4-5,17-19

Psalm 71:1-6,15,17

1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13

Luke 4:21-30

More than six months of preparation. Over $3,500 in fundraising money received. My bags were packed. Our youth group trip was set. I was ready to go to bed because we had to be in Lexington at 6am the next morning to get on the bus. We were heading to Washington, D.C. to attend the 2016 March For Life events to stand up for the lives destroyed through abortion. For those unaware with March For Life, it’s the largest Pro-Life demonstration in the world held on the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision from the Supreme Court that legalized abortion in the United States. This is an incredible opportunity for our youth to participate in. We were all very excited. And then I got the text from David Coleman telling me the bus company had cancelled our trip due to the blizzard predicted to hit Washington that same weekend. I guess I hadn’t realized how excited I was to go on that trip until I noticed how angry I got after getting that heartbreaking text. Unfortunately, there was nothing I could do except unpack my bags, vent to Fr. Al on the phone and pour a glass of bourbon.

I was also frustrated because, whenever I go on one of these trips, I always incorporate it into my next homily. So here I am, without an inspiring story for my homily. And ohhhhhh buddy…. It was going to be an awesome one too! I’m talking awe-inspiring, Amen shouting, hands-in-the-air-preaching awesome! I mean… did you hear these readings today? The Church picked these readings for this weekend, not me. They would have fit PERFECTLY with a March For Life experience. The first reading from Jeremiah is one of the most commonly referenced Pro-Life scripture passages out there. The second reading talks about the importance of love. COME ON! It was a perfect set up! Follow me through these readings so you can feel my pain…

From Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you, a prophet to the nations I appointed you.” That verse is about as Pro-Life as it gets! The passage continues with strong military-like language such as: gird, stand, command, crushed, fortified city, pillar of iron, wall of brass. God is speaking as if Jeremiah were being prepared for war. How cool would it have been to use this strong imagery and compare it with the +600,000 people going to the battlegrounds of March For Life in Washington? A battle that God is begging all of us to partake in. To stand up for all of His sons and daughters that can’t stand up for themselves. To try and sway people to a culture of Life rather than a culture of death. A culture that promotes abortion, violence, pornography and pushing aside those that gets in your way. I’m telling you, that homily would have sent cold chills down your spine! But unfortunately, the blizzard screwed up my plans and my homily.

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So frantically looking for inspiration for my fast approaching preaching weekend, and being snowed in at home for a few days, I did what everyone does… I turned to Facebook! It was there that I came across an article discussing March For Life and Mother Teresa. I never had the honor of hearing Mother Teresa speak at an event, but I knew she had a way of speaking the truth with love but also with brutal honestly. This is not an easy task!

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This article described a keynote address she made at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994. In her address Mother Theresa said, “I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child, a direct killing of the innocent child, murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill even her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another? How do we persuade a woman not to have an abortion? As always, we must persuade her with love and we remind ourselves that love means to be willing to give until it hurts… Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what they want. This is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”

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Now, today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, “But I shall show you a still more excellent way.” LOVE. If I do not have love, I am nothing. If I do not have love, I gain nothing. Love never fails. Mother Teresa, in her saintly way, gave me the inspiration I was seeking to convey to you today. She lovingly and directly incorporated today’s 1st and 2nd readings into a battle cry for all of those who attend March For Life year after year.

Unfortunately, when we speak the truth on a hot button topic such as abortion, we risk getting push back from today’s culture that promotes relativism over the existence of absolute truth. But take heart, as we hear in today’s Gospel, even Jesus got push back when He spoke the truth. They tried to throw Jesus off a hill in resentment of the truth that He spoke!

However, we must not let this push back prevent us from faithfully living out our Catholic beliefs. Instead, we must let it inspire us to keep on fighting! God is on our side so we must be BOLD. During her speech, Mother Teresa begged anyone contemplating abortion to consider adoption. She went so far as to tell people to bring their baby to her and she’d personally find an adoptive family for their child. By 1994, the children’s home in Calcutta alone had saved over 3,000 children from abortion by doing just that. This is what being bold looks like!

So here’s the challenge we all face today. First, we have to separate what the world teaches from what Jesus Christ and His Church teaches. Unfortunately, these don’t always agree. Then we need to actively practice these Christian teachings through our actions. Finally, if we are being true to our faith, we need to follow Jesus’ example and be willing to be thrown off a hill…. literally or figuratively… for our beliefs. Only then will we be able to change the culture. Only then will we see less abortion, violence, pornography and the like.

We must be willing to love and give until it hurts if we want to positively influence our world.

With God’s help, I pray that YOU will be the change our world so desperately needs.

He May Be Calling You Next

5th Sunday Ordinary Time (Feb 10, 2013)

Is 6:1-2a, 3-8

Ps 138

1 Cor 15:1-11

Lk 5:1-11

God calls sinners to do His work. For example, look at the three men mentioned in today’s readings: Isaiah shakes in fear because he has seen the Lord with his own eyes but admits he is a man of unclean lips. Paul was one of the fiercest persecutors of Christians. Peter, a self-professed sinner, begs his Lord to depart from him due to his unworthiness. What is God’s response? He purifies Isaiah’s lips with hot coal, humbles Paul by knocking him off his high horse turning him into one of the greatest promoters of Christianity and tells Peter to not be afraid. That is because God knows our true potential better than we do. He calls us sinners to a conversion experience and then sends us out to do His work without accepting our excuses.

I recently had the honor and joy to lead a group of 18 from St. Andrew’s to March For Life in Washington, DC this past January.

Our group from St. Andrew Catholic Church

Our group from St. Andrew Catholic Church

March For Life has been held every year since the Supreme Court legalized abortion in the United States 40 years ago. It is the largest gathering of it’s kind in the entire world where people come together to show their support for the Gospel of Life. Not even snow flurries or 28-degree weather was able to keep us away. It was an experience that has forever changed my life. The odd thing was that the entire time I was on the trip, I couldn’t help think to myself, “how in the world did I end up here considering my past…considering my excuses!”

You see…just like Isaiah, Paul and Peter, God calls each one of us to greatness. I’m not talking about greatness in terms you may think of…money, fame or having the newest iPhone. I’m talking about hearing God’s call and following it no matter where it leads us.

I wasn’t raised Catholic. I was baptized in a Lutheran church as an infant and then eventually attended a Presbyterian church throughout my youth. At some point in high school my Sunday church attendance was, well, let’s just say spotty at best. God was not very important in my life and I rarely spoke of Him or to Him. My parents did a great job raising me, but I put more faith in the information I learned in the school locker room, which allowed me to make my share of dumb decisions. After all, at that time in my life my parents didn’t know anything. I had all the answers! Never in those days would I have ever imagined saying yes to God calling me to the Catholic Church and eventually saying yes to being ordained a Catholic Deacon and working in youth ministry.

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Deacon John (left) and myself at the Vigil Mass

As a Catholic Deacon, God calls me to speak the truth and live out the Gospel at all times. I’m a servant of His Church and am bound to profess ALL that the Catholic Church teaches. Some would say this is a burden, but I say it is freeing! God already made the laws, He already told us what is good and bad, but He leaves it up to us to decide which path to follow. I now know my path because I follow the teachings of the Church the best I can. I am still a sinner, but now when I fall, I get back up, march into the confessional and try to start over. That is the greatness that God is calling each and every one of us to achieve. Choosing to follow the good in life, and be willing to admit when we are wrong. Want to know a secret?? God doesn’t call perfect people to spread His Gospel. He calls sinners and in the process turns them into saints!

It didn’t take much to hear God’s call or feel His presence at March For Life. Being there made me appreciate how beautiful life and our Catholic faith truly is. It’s humbling to see people marching around carrying signs that read, “Conceived from rape…I love my life!” or “I regret my abortion!” or “I regret lost fatherhood!Youth n23My favorite slogan was on a sweatshirt. It read, “I survived Death Roe but 55 million didn’t” with a picture of a baby. In this instance the “Roe” from “Death Roe” is referring to the 1973 court case Roe vs. Wade that legalized abortion in our country. I was born in 1977, which means my mother had the legal right to end my life by abortion but thankfully choose life. I’m part of the 75%. One fourth of pregnancies today end in abortion, which means 25% of my generation never saw life outside the womb. I’m one of the lucky ones.

This is not about Democrats, Republicans or Independents. This is more than politics or even religion; it’s about human rights! We live in a country that at one point in time allowed slavery, treated foreigners like trash, locked up the mentally challenged and disabled, turned the other way when it came to spousal abuse or child abuse and thought the color of your skin determined your value. Today, these things are NOT tolerated in any situation! That’s because it took brave people like Blessed Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King, Jr. to stand up and so NO!

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Now it’s our turn! It’s our turn to be the voice for the unborn! This is the legacy my generation is being called to witness to. This is the message of March For Life. We need to stand up and say NO to the culture of death! In the words of Cardinal Sean O’Malley, we need to “stop thinking that abortion is a necessary evil, and realize it’s just plain evil.” If we can’t get this one right, we don’t stand a chance against other evils like pornography, human trafficking or euthanasia to name just a few!

But here’s the good news…the tides are changing! Right now, more young Americans identify themselves as pro-life than ever before.  That was the joy that brought tears to my eyes on more than one occasion during our pilgrimage to March For Life. Seeing all of the young people coming together in such great numbers. 13,000 people attended the Vigil Mass at the great Basilica in Washington, DC together with 1,000 clergy and seminarians….

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6,000 attended the Youth Mass and Rally at George Mason University, which was only one of several locations hosting a Youth Mass and Rally….

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650,000 people came together to march on the streets in support of life during that cold January day….

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The majority of these people were young adults!

God is calling each and every one of us to greatness. Right at this very second, God is looking down from His thrown in heaven asking, “Whom shall I send? Who will I call to be the next disciple to promote My Gospel of Life?” BE NOT AFRAID…He’s not looking at your past or your worthiness; He’s looking at your potential! So be ready…He may be calling YOU next!

March For Life 2013

I was in the crypt church under the main sanctuary at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. All the deacons were putting on their albs and stoles on one side while the priests and seminarians were vesting on the other side. Basillica 21The beauty of the crypt church was breathtaking, but it was hard to move around due to the large number of people. The anticipation was building as the clock approached 6:30pm to begin the Vigil Mass. The massive organ started playing upstairs and instantly everyone in the crypt church went silent. 500 seminarians lead the procession up the stairs to the main sanctuary. The 80 deacons (myself included) slowly followed behind them but in front of the 395 priests, 42 bishops and 5 cardinals. We were lead up a dark, narrow staircase. I knew the main church would be full of people, but coming up from those stairs into the main sanctuary literally took my breath away. Wall to wall people…

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…all looking at us with smiles on their faces and many with tears in their eyes. As I ascended the steps up to the altar, it felt like I was walking straight up to heaven. The beauty of the high altar…

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…the gorgeous artwork on the walls…

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…and ceiling…

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…along with the 13,000 people singing in unison was a moment I’ll never forget. I couldn’t help but get a little emotional as I tried to take it all in and realized we were all there to show our support to the Gospel of Life.

The next day we started with a Youth Mass at George Mason University. 6,000 people (mostly young adults) packed the Patriot Center…

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…while my favorite musician Matt Maher sang the processional song…

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Although the procession wasn’t as long as the Vigil Mass, it was equally powerful. I’ve never seen so much excitement on the faces of all those young adults at a Mass before. It’s like they knew God had called them to be present at that moment in time to spread the joy of the Gospel to others.

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After Mass, we boarded the bus, got our Chick-Fil-A sandwiches and headed downtown for the March For Life. When the bus arrived downtown, we unloaded and immediately saw a sea of people and pro-life signs everywhere. It was a chaperone’s nightmare to realize I had to keep track of 18 people in a crowd of 650,000! Youth n41Once we got on the street and joined the March, all my fears went away. It was a true moment of joy to join together with so many people for the Pro-Life cause. We slowly, but cheerfully made our way up Capitol Hill to the steps of the Supreme Court with snow blowing in our faces. We then made it back to our bus, headed to the Youth Rally and ended the day with the most powerful Eucharistic Adoration I’ve ever experienced.

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After experiencing such a powerful March For Life pilgrimage, my prayer is that I’ll never have to do it again…because the entire country will catch the passion I shared with so many others on that pilgrimage and we will end abortion forever!

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