The 2 reactions I always get as a married priest

mystical marriage

This is a similar homily to one I gave a while back for all those beautiful people at Holy Infant, but there are some amendments for the equally beautiful people at Epiphany and you may have missed it the first time around.

I’m not so modest as to claim that I don’t enjoy talking about myself, but I would like to limit it during homilies and focus instead on Our Lord who unites us, and on his Mother who holds each one of us in her loving arms. But… I’m going to make a bit of an exception this morning because when I first meet people, they have questions. Specifically, there is one question – What’s the deal with the married priest?

Although I know many of you very well, I know that I’ve never talked about it, so here goes. Some quick background: Amber and I were married 15 years ago, we went to St. Charles West high school, class of ’99 (I know that’s important to share with you) and we have happily expanded our little tribe with five children: Catherine, Mary, Michael jr, Augustine, and Teresia Benedicta, and this is probably the first and last time I’ll mention them in a homily. In 2006, I was ordained and called priest in the Anglican church, which first formed under King Henry VIII in mid-16th century England. Their ministers are allowed to marry and it wasn’t an issue, but when we converted to the Catholic faith in 2011, I didn’t know if I would ever serve the Church as an ordained minister again. That was a difficult time, and I am forever grateful to you at Epiphany for letting me spend that time here, learning the faith, praying, and struggling through my frustration at not being a priest. Let me tell you, though, that the opportunity to raise our children in the faith would have been worth it even if I never had been led to where I am today. The Church is a precious gift from Our Lord, and we ought never take her for granted. Whatever it takes to be here at mass, it is worth it.

Okay, so when people hear about a married priest, I almost always hear one of two responses.

  1. Their eyes light up and they exclaim, “I think priests should be married too!” That is awfully nice to say and I know it is meant as a way of being welcoming, but there’s a mistaken assumption in there, because I do not, in fact, think that all priests should be married. Way more importantly, the Church does not think that all priests should be married. The Church has her reasons for this, mostly because priestly celibacy allows these heroic men to devote themselves totally to loving the Church and all of you like their very own family. They are a member of no family and a member of all families. As a famous poem by Lacordaire says of the unique existence of priests, “My God, what a life; and it is yours!” Celibate priests stand apart from the world as symbols of hope and that is precisely how they are so effective at bringing God’s love to us. In a way, they are already straddling heaven and earth. If you aren’t already doing so, please pray for priests. Long story short, my own position is an exception and I don’t expect it will change and I have no intention of trying to change it.
  1. Some have a totally opposite reaction and say, “A married priest sure sounds like a double standard. We like the celibate priesthood and it isn’t fair that you get to be married.” Over the past five years as I was seeking ordination, I shared that concern, and I wondered if other priests would be jealous and dislike me. If it was unfair and if I shouldn’t give up. But then I had a surprising conversation with Fr. Pastorius. One day, after my children had rampaged through the rectory with the energy of a thousand tornadoes, he actually thanked me! He said, “Thank you for confirming my vocation to celibacy and to never, ever having children.” Behind that joke lies a serious truth that I have heard many priests echo. They don’t see a double standard at all. They have no desire to be married, they aren’t jealous, and they are leading happy and fulfilled lives. In fact, it was presumptuous of me to think that they’d be jealous of me! Take a second and see celibacy the way our priests do, it is a sacrifice, yes, but with sacrifice comes great reward. Celibacy is a gift from God and isn’t merely a sign of something missing, it is a sign of a soul that has been changed by God and is forever bonded to him. In a mysterious way, celibacy for the sake of God is even more fundamental than the marriage bond, which is why priests are such great marriage counselors. They understand the commitment it takes to be married.

Another variation on this response is that a married priest is a change in the Church and maybe isn’t a good one. A few quick thoughts on that. What we know as the Mass is actually one regional expression of the Catholic Church. Our Mass is called the Roman Rite. Other Rites exist, such as the Maronite Rite (St. Raymond’s, downtown), a Coptic Rite, a Ukrainian Rite, a Byzantine Rite, and so on. There are a lot, the Catholic Church is truly Catholic, meaning Universal. In most of these other parts of the Catholic Church, from the very beginning, some priests have been married. So this is actually a ancient practice of the Church. But, in the Roman Rite, it will remain very limited, an exception for a few men, and I am confident it will stay that way. Another concern is about going to a married priest for confession. Just a quick reminder, if I or any priest ever breathes a word of what we hear in confession, even to the person who confessed it, even to the police, even to my wife, I will not only have my priesthood taken away, I will be excommunicated from the Church. In confession, that’s between you and God, and he will forgive anything and his priest immediately forgets it.

Turning to our Gospel reading for today, Our Lord makes the invitation to come to him and find rest. In life, God has a challenge, a destiny, uniquely your own, a path for you alone. For some of us it is priesthood, for others to marriage or hoping to be married, some of us are still busy growing up and going to school, or adjusting to retirement. We are all at different places in our lives, all have different gifts, and whatever vocation you have I encourage you to dedicate yourself to it with your whole self. Don’t be afraid to leave behind whatever holds you back to strive for greatness. As St. Catherine of Sienna says, “Be brave about everything.” Life can throw all sorts of challenges and discouragements our way, and the burden can sometimes feel overwhelming, but Our Lord invites each one of us, whether we think we deserve it or not, to come to him. He will always provide you with the grace necessary to take the next step.

God has a plan for each and every one of you. He cares for you and loves you, so run to him. Don’t hesitate, and find that as you find your place at his side you will find your true happiness.

A few more daily homilies about the Mass

  1. 18916217698fc2bfebe7e067300462d7Why are the candles lined up across the altar with a crucifix facing the priest?

To have the altar arranged in this way is called the “Benedictine” arrangement of the altar. It is highly recommended by Pope Benedict the XVI and is at least partly in use in St. Louis at, among other places, the Cathedral Basilica where you might notice a crucifix on the altar. It greatly helps the priest and the faithful alike to perceive and reverence the greatness of the altar of sacrifice, and to turn our interior gaze to Jesus Christ who stands at the very center of the Mass. I try to keep my eyes lowered during Mass because it helps me concentrate on praying (instead of being nervous), but when I’m standing at the altar, the few times my eyes are raised, it is tremendously helpful to see before my eyes the crucified Lord, a living picture of what is occurring in my very hands upon the altar.

To arrange the altar in this way is a centering of our community upon the One who offers Himself up for our salvation and makes us participants in His offering. The priest should not be the center of attention: he is only an instrument of the Eternal High Priest. He steps back, as did St. John the Baptist, saying: “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Pope Francis asks, “Is Christ the center of my life? Do I really put Christ at the center of my life? Because there is always the temptation to want to put ourselves in the center.” In whatever area we have that temptation, we will only find peace when we take a step back and allow Jesus to become our focus.

O Lord, may we follow you in all things.

2. What’s the deal with the hat?

Whenever I appear to offer Mass at a new parish, I notice that upon exiting people have questions for me. Specifically, they have one question, “What’s the deal with the hat?” I’m only too happy to answer questions of this sort. It is called a biretta and some of you may remember priests in the past having worn them. It’s less popular today but I’m always on the cutting edge of fashion (you know me) and I’m trying to bring it back.

St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on the infamous head-covering passage in 1 Corinthians, part of which is St. Paul explaining that a man who prays ought to uncover his head, explains the spiritual meaning of the hat, writing, “First…man existing under God should not have a covering over his to show he is immediately subject to God… Secondly, to show that the glory of God should not be concealed but revealed; but man’s glory is to be concealed. Hence it says in Ps 115 (v. 1): ‘Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name give the glory.’”

The biretta is worn specifically that it might be taken off. The Sacred Ministers wear it in procession to the foot of the altar and it is immediately removed. It is only recovered while seated, while preaching, and upon reaching the foot of the altar again for the recessional. The reason I wear a biretta is simple – it helps me pray better. I’m reminded that in approaching the altar I enter a sacred space – I am humbled before the presence of God. In offering the Mass I am not about to put on a show or draw attention to myself, I am here to intercede for the faithful and become a sacrificial victim.

O Lord, may your glory be revealed

Why does Father use incense at Sunday Mass?

You may have noticed that I have a bit of an attachment to using incense at Sunday Mass. Partly this is because I think it smells great and has been clinically proven to help relieve stress, but typically, I try to keep my own personal preferences out of the liturgy, so the reason I use incense isn’t simply because I happen to like it. We actually use incense at Mass because that is how God taught us to worship him.

In the Old Testament, God told Moses to burn incense in front of the Ark of the Covenant, and incense continued to be used in the Temple even during the time of Christ. Incense is also used in heaven itself during worship. We know this because St. John describes what he saw in the Book of Revelation, writing, “Another angel came in holding a censer of gold. He took his place at the altar of incense and was given large amounts of incense to deposit on the altar of gold in front of the throne, together with the prayers of all God’s holy ones. From the angel’s hand, the smoke of the incense went up before God, and with it the prayers of God’s people.”

The smoke symbolizes the prayers of the faithful drifting up to heaven, which is why Psalms 141 says, “Let my prayer come like incense before you.” The Mass is a transcendent experience that links heaven and earth, the smell of the incense brings about strong memories of praying in Church and the smoke creates a visual link and a sense of mystery that is fitting and proper to help us adore God.

O Lord, may our prayers rise up before you like incense

Collect/Orans

A number of times during Mass the priest says something that should strike you as a bit odd, he says “Let us pray” We have already been praying! But these words point us in the direction of what the prayer that follows it actually does. The first of these prayers is called a collect, meaning that it collects the prayers of the faithful and the priest visibly offers them to God. There is usually a small period of silence left by the priest before he begins the collect – use that moment to pray. After all, the priest has just said, “let us pray!” It seems like a little ritualistic formula, “The lord be with you, and with your spirit, let us pray” but hear those words again [repeat them to yourself slowly]. Let them sink into your heart. The Lord dwells with you. He has made his home with you and given you a share of his priestly character. When you pray, it is Christ praying within you. What to pray for? It can be as simple as your mass intention, a prayer for your family, or a prayer to keep you free from sin this day.

Notice that the prayers, are clear, concise, and rather beautiful. This is our worship; we stand to pray out of respect, the priest raises his hands in what is called the Orans posture to convey a lifting up of the heart to God, and we address our Father with tenderness and devotion as we would a cherished loved one. A quick note, the priest alone holds his hands in the orans posture, and when he does it means that he is praying with the whole community. He collects the prayers for us and is the only one to verbalize the words, but it is the privilege of all of us to offer up our prayers to the God who always hears us.

Goodbyes are hard

Tizian, Das Abendmahl - Titian / The Last Supper -

Year A Ordinary 12

Jer 20:10-13, Rom 5:12-15, Matt 10:26-33

Today is my last Sunday with all you beautiful people. I have 8am Mass here tomorrow morning and then on Tue you all will receive an upgrade when Fr. Burkemper arrives. Even though it has only been a short time, the embrace I and my family have received here is unforgettable, and I know you’ll extend the same love to Fr. Burkemper when he arrives. Trust me, it’s a great gift to priests when the laity support us and care for us. Priests have beautiful lives and are very happy, but there are times when the job is overwhelmingly difficult and heartbreaking, it is a spiritual mercy when you treat them as well as you all do, and God sees, and he smiles on Holy Infant.

Now, that said, at least one of you has accused me of abandoning you and going off to Epiphany. Believe me, I tried to get Fr Stanger transferred so I could take over as pastor. I offered bribes, I complained, I insinuated to the Archbishop that perhaps it was time for a new priest to take over here. All to no avail. But we’ll always have that time when I insisted I would beat you all in the Shamrock Shuffle and then hurt myself, or how I made not one, not two, but three people on separate occasions faint during Mass with the intensity of my homiletic delivery, and that time the 8th graders informed me that I look like Harry Potter.

harry potter
Me (apparently)

The time was short, but the connections were real, and I will miss it here.

Life is full of uncertainty, isn’t it? I still remember, back when I was an Anglican pastor, telling my parish council that I was going to convert to Catholicism, full well knowing that they might fire me on the spot, and that I would be leaving my job, my home, my ministry, and coming to St. Louis with no clue what the future held. I’m not alone in having endured uncertain moments like this, and I assume that all of us have something that at some point has kept us awake at night: the big test at school, what high school to go to, what college to go to, how to raise your children and not mess them up forever, how to provide for your family, how to love your spouse when it seems so hard, how to prepare for death…

Sometimes the ripple of these moments brings about uncertainty or even fear. Fear makes us do silly things. We step forward when we should stay put, stay put when it’s time to make a change. We might lie or cheat to save face or avoid a difficult conversation. Fear can make us sin, because often sin is the easy way out, it’s a denial of reality, an avoidance technique for that which has us tangled up in knots. Fear makes us settle for less, because not knowing what’s over the next horizon is paralyzing. Fear of growing old and fear of death has spawned an entire industry of sports cars, cosmetics, plastic surgery, and dietary supplements to make us forever young. The most common side effect of fear is that we become something other than what we are. By that I mean we begin to live in such a way that we aren’t boldly seeking heaven because it seems too grandiose a dream. We draw back and fail to fulfill the great destiny that God has planned for each one of us.

If fear is slowing you down, or taking you away from your true self, you aren’t alone. Our Lord specifically addresses this with his disciples, saying, “Fear no one.” And again, “Do not be afraid.” These early followers of Jesus faced tremendous pressure. They were mocked, physically threatened, never sure where their next meal would come from, never sure where they would be living next. But the connection they had with the Body of Christ overcame all fear.

When life throws us change, forces us to say our goodbyes, be reminded that the communion of the Body of Christ is deeper yet, that God knows the number of hairs on your head, that he has saved us from the fires of hell and will never let us fall if we cling to him. He is the unchanging God, the eternal Trinity, the one we run to when we aren’t sure what the future has in store, and as each of us runs to him we find that, because we are closer to him, we are also close to each other no matter the distance that is seemingly in between.

O God, draw us ever further into your sacred heart.

He gives us everything

corpus christi

Year A Corpus Christi

Today, on the Solemnity of Corpus Christi during which we celebrate the Eucharistic miracle, we encounter a difficult Gospel passage. In it, Our Lord claims to literally, substantially be the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, and even more difficult to digest (pun intended!) is the further claim that those who follow him must consume him. Having heard this, his disciples quarreled, and many ended up abandoning him.

The quarrel continues to this very day, and the spiritual atmosphere we find ourselves in is one in which the sacraments in general are misunderstood. By many they are considered a mere symbol, denying the plain meaning of Our Lord’s words –The Eucharist is truly his body, blood, soul, and divinity. It is not a mere symbol. The catechism teaches that the Blessed Sacrament is an efficacious sign, meaning that it participates in the reality beyond the symbol and creates a spiritual grace. Otherwise why would St. Paul tell us in the Scriptures that those who receive communion in a state of mortal sin are falling more spiritually ill than before? A symbol cannot have such an effect.

In the past, I was on the other side of this debate. I would have claimed that sacraments make no sense, that faith is only a matter of the heart, a spiritual reality and not a bodily one. But of course (not for the first time in my life), I was wrong and have since learned that it is quite natural and fitting for Our Lord to use physical means to remain present to us. Humans are not spirits trapped in bodies, and we are not looking to be freed of our bodies but rather we anticipate that our bodies will be perfected through the resurrection. We are embodied souls, and along with the harmonious perfection of the human form that shows how beautiful the human soul is, God also declares the created world around us is beautiful and good. This is why we care for the environment, see God in a sunset, find our devotion stirred by physically hearing music, and pray with our whole selves not just our minds. The world is God-shaped. And all of it points to one, supreme physical reality – the Eucharistic miracle.

We see it all the way back in the Old Testament. God gives the Israelites the Ark of the Covenant, within which is a jar of manna, Bread from Heaven. The Ark goes before the people as they approach the Promised Land. As they approach the Jordan river, the water flowing downstream stops in its tracks and creates dry land. We shouldn’t be amazed at this miracle, because the Eucharist itself is more powerful yet. It brings us to Heaven, and all of creation serves it and bows down before the Body and Blood of Christ. It isn’t hyperbole to point out that the very reason wheat and wine were created were so that they might become the Eucharist. From the foundation of the world, this has been their inner purpose.

Belief in the Eucharist can be challenging, but once we accept it through faith, we see how all of creation is fitted to it. Each of us has probably experienced a sense of yearning, a moment of beauty so intense you felt it would rip your heart in two, a love of such devotion that you cannot imagine your existence without it. Perhaps you’ve forgotten about those moments as their intensity has faded. This is natural because, when we’ve torn the veil and are peering into eternity, it isn’t a place we can remain and eventually we return to everyday life. Consider, for example, how St. Peter is not allowed to remain in the presence of the transfigured Christ but they must move on.

Evelyn Waugh writes, “Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; vagabond-language scrawled on gate-posts and paving-stones along the weary road that others have tramped before us; perhaps you and I are…snatching a glimpse now and then of the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us.”

God is just around the corner, sometimes we catch a glimpse sometimes not. He is just around the corner in all instances except one – in the Eucharist he is right here right now. Spiritual sustenance is promised to us, without fail, every time we assist at Mass. In Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee has an interesting experience of the Eucharist, which he calls lembas bread. JRR Tolkien writes, “The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die. It…had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.”

It isn’t surprising that Tolkien would write the Eucharist into Lord of the Rings, because elsewhere he says, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”

What a beautiful way of putting it! All our loves, all our desires, all our experiences of beauty are gathered up into the Eucharist, which is the one, centralizing act of love at the foundation of the universe. Our Lord is the culmination of creation, the heart at the center of history, the font of all that makes life worth living.

I wonder if this radical, life-altering openness to God is why it’s so tempting to dismiss the Eucharist as a mere symbol. It’s a frightening thing to realize that the God of the universe is re-creating the world and drawing it into the Church, that he is overwhelming our souls and placing the full benefit and demand of love within us. The early Christians understood the danger, they were eaten by lions and burned alive because of their commitment to the Eucharist, but they were happy to do so because they also understood the implications, that if wheat and wine find their true purpose only in becoming the Body and Blood of Christ, we humans only find our true purpose in consuming it and becoming one with Christ in both his death and resurrection. The implications are far-reaching, and some of us may prefer to empty the Mass of its sacrificial power and abandon him rather than follow his difficult path.

Pope Benedict XVI asks, “Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives…are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom?” He answers his own question, “. . . No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing… of what makes life free, beautiful and great…Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything.”

The Eucharist is proof – He gives us everything.