Recently, I visited a priest friend who was just made the administrator of a parish. This is the first time for him in this role. We were comparing notes and talking about our challenges. He was very hopeful and excited about the initiatives beginning in his parish, specifically having three days of adoration and expanded hours for confession each week. I was glad to see my friend so happy and confident, especially since he has been through many hardships over the last several years. He’s had a few rough assignments with difficult pastors, has battled depression, and overcame a struggle with alcoholism. Not too long after his recovery, he was almost killed when he was struck by a car while taking a walk near his parish. The accident has left him with some severe physical limitations and chronic pain. But he is happy and hopeful. How does one come back and come back stronger after being through so much? He jokes, “I’ve been through Monsignor Joe’s “school for misfit priests.” Msgr. Joe has been a priest for almost 50 years, and probably a pastor for more than thirty. He’s a gentle, kind-hearted man who, over the years, has taken in priests who have gotten themselves into some kind of trouble and has provided a place for them to re-enter ministry in a supportive environment. Msgr. Joe is a hard worker who expects his associates to work as well, but he cares for his brother priests and will provide the mentoring and support that the priests need. He is a real “father figure.” My friend knows he has someone with a lot of experience to call when he’s trying to figure out a pastoral issue or deal with an issue concerning the operation of the parish. But what my friend has leaned most through the experience of Msgr. Joe’s “school” is that he’s loved in his weakness and not defined by his weakness. This is what gives him hope and new life.
The event of Jesus’ baptism communicates the surprising way that God saves us. He associates himself with sinners. This is what catches John the Baptist off-guard when Jesus approaches him to be baptized. John, aware of his unworthiness, resists, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?” Jesus says to him, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus identifies himself with sinners. He literally gets in line with sinners. He humbles himself to be with us in our sin. We are only saved when we allow this mercy to come to us – when we accept God’s plan that doesn’t seem just to us. Making things “right” with God doesn’t come from our goodness – our effort, but by allowing the mercy, love, and goodness of God to come near to us and and by cooperating with this grace.
The baptism of Jesus – going down into the water and coming up again – prefigures his death and resurrection that opened heaven for us. His death on the cross was his total identification with sinners. Our dying and rising in the waters of baptism prefigures our resurrection from the dead on the last day. In this sacramental action, we are recreated or “born again” into the new life of grace. Baptism is not our action but God taking us to himself, adopting us as his children, and looking on as he looked on Jesus, “This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.” What we must note is that the baptism takes place before the public ministry begins – before Jesus begins his ministry of preaching, and healing, and casting out demons. God the Father is “well-pleased” with Jesus before Jesus accomplishes anything. The Father’s pleasure is not based on or dependent on what Jesus has achieved. He is pleased simply because Jesus belongs to him – this is my son. This is how God the Father looks on us as his children. We don’t have to earn his love. Do we see ourselves the way God sees us? As beloved of God before we’ve done anything – “beloved” even when we’ve sinned? The awareness of this love that is not dependent on our goodness is what allows us to rise again after we’ve fallen. The belonging to God formed in baptism is stronger and more defining than our weakness.
I recently met with a college student suffering from anxiety and repeated negative thoughts about himself and his future. He totally lacked self-confidence and had little direction in his life. He spent a lot of time by himself watching movies and playing video games. He said that he prayed but didn’t go to Mass that often. He admitted that he was, in large part, “stuck in his own head.” Our healing begins when we stop being defined by our own thoughts or the judgmental voices of others and, instead, allow the voice of God the Father to define us: “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased.” I came to learn later from the young man’s mother that his father is distant and verbally abusive, and that the children in the home are scared of him. The young man’s anxiety made sense because his relationship with his father was not one of unconditional love, closeness, and protection but rather one of judgement and fear.
The renewal of the grace our baptism through the sacrament of confession – an experience of the Father’s mercy – his embrace of us in our weakness, is so necessary for our rehabilitation and peace. We need to be educated or formed in this “school” of mercy to understand and to know how much God loves us. We need an experience of mercy in order to be reformed from the lies we’ve adopted that have deformed the image of God in us. We are all “misfits” in life until we experience the mercy of God and let his voice resound in our hearts and minds. Whose voice are you listening to? God has called us to share in his victory and has grasped us by the hand in baptism. May we allow him to take us by the hand. We are still “misfits” in the sense that we belong not to this world but to God, but we are misfits with hope because we’ve experienced the nearness and love of God for us through Jesus his Son.
For the 10:00 a.m. “Enrollment Mass” for the First Communion Candidates, Fr. Forlano concluded with speaking directly to the young people in these words:
The young people we recognize today who are preparing for First Holy Communion will receive first penance in March and First Holy Communion in May. Dear young people, think of your formation in faith this way: Every time I go to Mass, I hear the voice of the Father saying to me, “I love you – you belong to me.” When we go to confession, we experience the mercy and love of God and know we are loved even when we sin. In Holy Communion, we experience the nearness of God and are strengthened in that experience of belonging to him – to the Body of Christ. Sometimes we stay away from Holy Communion because we think, “I’m not worthy – I’ve not been good.” That thought is true. We even say those words before receiving Holy Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” What is the “word” we need to hear from the Lord to heal our soul? “And I absolve you from your sins.” These are the words the priest says to the person in confession – speaking in the voice of Jesus. In other words, “You are forgiven; you are loved. You are mine.” Holy Communion or the Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior – something only for the holy or the good. Rather, Holy Communion is God’s medicine or help for the weak and the sinner. We need Jesus to be with us to strengthen us because we are weak and need his help. May we like John the Baptist, allow Jesus to come to us and listen to his voice so God can fulfill in us all he wants for his beloved children.