James Weitzel, Senior Anchor Intern – Retreats & Pilgrimages
We influence. This statement is realized once we start to take notice of how our actions impact those around us. Hopefully what I share will illustrate this point.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, I never really experienced snow growing up. One of the drawing factors for leaving sunny southern California for college was this strange new concept of seasons (and of course the new weather that came with it, and not to mention academics, etc.). In short, Notre Dame did not let me down. August brought all the green and humidity, there was an explosion of color in autumn, and after a long cold wait finally came that mythical frozen water from the sky in the winter. That first snow, of course, was amazing, but so was the second and third and so on. Not everyone shared in my enthusiasm… nevertheless, snow fascinated me, and the pain of the cold could not take away from the beauty of it. I more than happily volunteered to shovel the sidewalks outside the dorm on the weekend and to brush off the cars in the parking lot (I would only do half the car though…).
I know it is nowhere close to snowing as some days it is still near 85 degrees out, but sometimes it is helpful to frame the future unpleasantries before they happen.
All of this was merely setting up a snowy day in January: it was absolutely freezing, and the wind chill just made things colder. I was walking in (late) to my job at Campus Ministry as a student worker, and quite excitedly mentioned how beautiful it was outside to one of my bosses, Abby. I didn’t think anything of the brief encounter that happened as I scurried past her to the desk. The next day, I received a wholehearted thanks and explanation of how my simple statement of beauty along with my presence changed the whole outcome of her day. It turns out, as I was walking in, she was getting ready to head out and was very much dreading the walk to her car in heels (she forgot her snow boots) and the inevitable traffic that was to follow. My little comment of beauty made her slow down enough to see the beauty I saw, and brighten her day a bit. I didn’t realize my impact on people: my simple sharing of what was happening in my head actually had an impact on someone. This was never my intention. I was just excited that it was snowing.
We are all called to be leaders, to ultimately be intentional with our words and actions: we have the power of influence. To borrow some language from the Constitutions of Holy Cross, being a leader can be as simple as having the competence to see, and the courage to act. This seeing and action takes some self-reflection though: we cannot say what’s on our hearts if we are too preoccupied with the difficulties ahead. The snow is absolutely beautiful, but that doesn’t mean we will always see its beauty. If we don’t take time for self-reflection and prayer, we won’t see the ways God is acting in our lives at the present: we won’t see God’s extraordinary works in what we have considered ordinary. We can’t do what we’re called to do if we don’t know what to do.
We influence. No one has figured out what God’s full plan is no matter how put together most people on this campus seem, I ask us to challenge ourselves. Not challenge ourselves as in “go out and make 10 new friends.” I’m challenging you to look inward: challenge what you think you know about yourself, to ask the deeper questions and seek the deeper answers. To not just recognize the beauty around us, but to share it. To not just think of ourselves, but to be aware of the influence we have on others. For not only do we influence, but we should be more open to receiving influence as well. Sometimes we need to let go of our pride a little bit (or a lot), so we can be open to listening to others, so we can grow from genuine encounter. We are called to be God’s hands and feet in this world, so, of course, God works through others, we just have to be present to hear it.
The second to last 3D foundations critique of the spring 2018 semester was wrapping up and while I should have been engaged in discussing my fellow classmates’ work I was instead sitting there really trying to puzzle out why in all my time of making art, both in high school and now as a visual communication design major, I had never made art that tied back to my faith. Several classmates had made pieces discussing their faith and the challenges that come with it, which kick-started my reflection. In the end I realized that I had always felt as if there were ‘more important’ issues than faith that should be discussed in art such as promoting women’s rights, equal access to education, or greater cultural sensitivity and thus that’s what I latched onto. I saw my faith and ministry as separate from the work I completed in my major and the path I wanted to take in the future in the art field. With all this in mind, I challenged myself to make my final piece related to my faith, while also retaining some of the influence of those other interests.
In ideating how exactly my faith could intersect my artistic creation, I somehow circled back to a documentary I had watched on Islamic Art. I was inspired by a particular line that said in Islam the most important gift from God is His Word and thus text is one of the most prominent art forms in Islamic Art. I made the jump then to considering that for Christians God’s most precious gift is His Son, and thus figures are at the center of Christian imagery. Blending these ideas together, I thought of the beginning of John’s Gospel which synthesizes these two seemingly contradictory ideas into “In the beginning was the Word… and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh”.
Using these lines, parts of John 1:1 and John 1:14, as a starting point, I created three layers of Bible verses written in Arabic calligraphy inspired by the Dome of the Rock and the Hagia Sofia. The verses mentioned from John’s Gospel are the first and second layers of Arabic text in the piece respectively. I explored to find more Biblical texts that discussed the Word and arrived on text from Luke (11:28) and James (1:22) from the New Testament and Deuteronomy (30:14) and Psalms (119:130) from the Old Testament in the final layer, which allowed the piece to also connect with the Jewish faith. In creating this work I wanted to start a dialogue between the different major faith traditions in a way that looked at the similarities or the areas where our theology crossed over versus beginning at how they were different. In striving for this dialogue, I was able to retain my usual desire to tackle tough issues in my artistic creations in a way that prompts conversation among viewers, the artwork, and myself.
While the artwork was made to fulfill the needs of a class project, I wanted to do more with it than simply show it to my fellow classmates. I, therefore, tried entering it into Grand Rapids ArtPrize, one of the most attended art events in the world. ArtPrize is an exhibition that takes over the entire city of Grand Rapids, MI with over 150 venues and over 1,000 artists and is one that I have gone to since I was young with my parents and grandparents. To be exhibited in ArtPrize, a venue has to select your work, and I had the great fortune of being selected by the Monroe Community Church this year. On September 15, 2018, I officially became an ArtPrize artist as I hung my piece on the wall of the church, and I could not be happier. The show will run from September 19-October 7 and on September 30, my piece will also be the inspiration for the sermon at the church’s Sunday service.
What started as a class project with the vague idea of incorporating my faith has now become a piece that will fuel conversation among the hundreds of thousands of visitors to ArtPrize. This has allowed me to begin seeing art and ministry in a whole new light and sparked the desire to continue creating art that is a catalyst for inter-faith dialogue.
The metal gate creaks in the same distinct way it always does as I step outside the towering fence and begin a walk that has become comfortingly familiar–the vast expanse of mountains and trees adorned by dozens of clouds in a clear blue sky to my left, and the barbed wire fence protecting my second grade classroom shaded by a gorgeous flowering tree to my right. I can still hear the sound of gravel crunching beneath my sandals along the path and feel the repetitive tap of my water bottle against my thigh as I walk up a small hill in front of the entrance to the nearby village church. I am welcomed by the rancid stench of a large pile of horse manure on the cement floor nestled alongside the wooden planks resting atop stacks of cinder blocks that serve as pews for the congregation. Large sheets of tin and a tarp serve as temporary roofing, and papel picado affixed to a white bed sheet hanging behind the wooden altar. The church itself looks and smells nothing like any church I had ever been in before coming to Honduras, but it is exactly in the humility, poverty, and simplicity that is so explicitly represented by the structure itself where I was able to encounter Christ in incredible ways this summer.
I spent my summer serving as a missionary at a children’s home and school in rural Honduras through the Center for Social Concerns’ (CSC) International Summer Service Learning Program (ISSLP). When explaining my experience of serving as a summer missionary in Honduras, I often find myself describing my experience as both the most difficult thing I’ve done in my entire life while also simultaneously the most wonderful and rewarding thing I have ever done. The hardest, most heartbreaking moments were always so full and abundantly anointed by the presence of Christ in that suffering, and I found myself time and time again surprised by joy and beauty when in my own weakness I was tempted to lose hope. I was constantly gifted with glimpses of God–in the children, in intentional conversations, in moments of learning, and in the natural beauty of sunsets and the sound of rolling ocean waves. My heart was brought closer to Christ’s suffering heart when hearing stories of great hardship and trial, or in the more taxing moments of living in community or in the detachment required to live out a radically simplistic lifestyle. Above all else, my daily experiences and encounters drew me closer to the humble heart of Christ, leading to a transformation within my own human heart.
Jesus humbled me to trust through the child-like hope of the smallest student attending the school where I taught classes, who couldn’t sleep at night because her bed was infested with biting ants. Jesus humbled me to trust through the judgment-free love extended by a 12-year-old to her absent mother, or from a pair of siblings to their negligent family. Jesus humbled me to trust in His divine plan and deliverance through the vocation story of a religious sister and through the examples of the seven long-term missionaries who had put their lives on hold to serve at the children’s home and give up all worldly comforts. Jesus humbled me to trust through the radical hospitality of members of the neighboring village who repeatedly opened their homes and what little they had to us with no hesitation.
The poverty and experiences of true suffering of each of these people, (and many more who I encountered and shared life with over the course of my 10 weeks abroad) allowed them to connect with Christ in a way I couldn’t, with true humility and through sharing in His humble state. These people know intimately the suffering and pain of the Cross, but they instead choose to live in trust and in the hope of the Resurrection and new life beyond the Crucifixion. My comfortable reality was effectively flipped–suddenly I was face to face with my own spiritual poverty of heart in the light of the material poverty right in front of me. In what ways was I the poorest one among us all?
When comparing my own life and spirituality to that of the people I met this summer, in many moments I came away feeling poor in new ways. These Honduran disciples have experienced so much loss, pain, and suffering on TOP of significant material poverty and still cling to God and to their faith above all else in their lives. I found the Church and the hope of Christ’s Resurrection incarnate in the stories and lives of the poor when I oftentimes could at first only find hopelessness. I was called deeper and deeper into trust through the example of humility and faith exhibited by so many people around me and in places where I always least expected to be drawn closer to Christ.
In Honduras, Jesus taught me to grow in humility and in appreciation of the virtue of humility through the power of encounter with others and in the example of the poor who I served and lived within Honduras. Jesus drew me even closer in love and understanding of His own holy and humble heart through the example of the humble hearts of the people I grew to love during my time as a missionary. In my experience, encountering humility, learning to trust amidst great uncertainty, and facing feelings of hopelessness can all be incredibly scary and uncomfortable things.
But, it’s important to recognize that at the same time, God is always gifting us with so much to learn and new ways to grow when faced with these feelings and difficulties. It is only through running towards these feelings and ultimately to Christ in the feelings and moments when we encounter difficulties which humble us (and not running away in fear) where we can allow Him to transform our hearts to become more like His. I’m grateful to have learned this summer that whether I’m serving as a missionary in Honduras, spending time at home in the Philadelphia suburbs, or attending classes and working in Campus Ministry in South Bend, the same God of the universe calls me to true humility and desires for all of us to know the poor and to know how we are poor and humble ourselves.
“What do you do at Notre Dame?” This is the question I am asked the most when people find out I work at Notre Dame. I would try to explain to them what I do, but every explanation that I would come up with was lacking. I would list my duties, and try to explain what they entailed but this was met with puzzled looks and many, many follow up questions. I’ve tried over the years to simplify my answer as best I could, sometimes just giving the definition of a sacristan right out of the Merriam – Webster dictionary, “a person in charge of the sacristy and ceremonial equipment.” This approach didn’t work and nothing I could come up with seemed to adequately describe what I do at Notre Dame.
Even now, after thirty-one years of being a sacristan at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, I still think about how to explain my job to someone. I’ve begun to think about a different point of view to explain what I do, a personal point of view. Not just the description on a job posting. What do I think I do at Notre Dame? How do I answer this question when asked of myself?
I unknowingly began to answer this question for myself three years ago while on a pilgrimage to France. Throughout the pilgrimage, we visited churches large and small from LeMans to Paris. A few of the churches we visited were in small, out of the way villages, farming communities. At these small village churches, we were warmly greeted and welcomed by the parishioners. We would visit the church, have Mass with the parishioners and then there would be a reception for us in a parish building, or sometimes in the church itself. Food and drink were offered to us, even though they had never met us. There was very little in the way of verbal communication, they spoke no English and the majority of us spoke little no French, but we did communicate. A smile, a handshake, a polite nod towards the food and drinks, the raising of a glass in thanks and the return acknowledgment. We didn’t have much in common except our mutual faith.
After I returned home from the pilgrimage to France, I saw my work at the Basilica in a new and different way. Besides focusing on the day to day tasks and whatever special service we were having in the Basilica, I started to think about the people coming into the Basilica. I remember how good it made me feel to be welcomed into a strange place. How at home I felt in a foreign place from just a handshake and a smile. Most of the people I see coming into the Basilica are visitors, pilgrims, just like I was in France. My work at the Basilica is a welcoming to these people. The worshipers, the visitors, the pilgrims, everyone should be welcomed and feel welcomed in God’s house.
As I go about my work at the Basilica, I really do enjoy the thought that most of the people I see every day are new to the Basilica and the University. I have the opportunity to impact their visit to the Basilica and the University, for the good.
Jonathan Hehn, Choral Program Director and Organist
So often, making music we have found a new dimension in the world of sound, as worship moves us to a more profound Alleluia! (1)
Why do I minister? Because I love leading the song of the Church. More than any other time, it is while leading congregational song that I find a profound sense of joy and purpose, and, thanks be to God, it is there that I am also able to encounter the world’s deep need.
People often ask me about my job, and at Notre Dame especially whether I love playing the Basilica organs. Those questions give me an opportunity to consider what exactly it is about my vocation that keeps me going. Do I love playing the organ? Yes. The organs here on campus are magnificent. Do I love directing choirs? Absolutely yes, and Notre Dame has some of the best collegiate choirs in the country. But what I love most is leading the song of the congregation. Congregational singing is at the core of my identity as a pastoral musician because I believe congregational singing does some things that other types of music making cannot.
The Power of Congregational Song to Promote Empathy
First, congregational singing brings the whole assembly into sense of empathy with one another. Of course, one could think about that empathy theologically. To paraphrase the General Instruction to the Roman Missal, singing together in worship fosters our unity as the gathered People of God and tunes our thoughts into the joyful mysteries of the liturgy. But one can also think about that empathy scientifically; indeed researchers are discovering that singing together not only builds stronger social/psychological bonds, but that singing together for an extended period of time actually causes people’s breathing and heartbeats to synchronize. Singing together creates literal, physiological empathy.
When I’m at my best leading song from the organ, I also get to experience that empathy. It’s a mystery to me how it is, in a Basilica filled with a thousand people, that I can feel them all breathing together between phrases of a hymn, but I often do so from my perch in the organ loft. Similarly, whenever one of the stanzas of a hymn has a particularly rousing text, I can feel the congregation instinctively making a praise-filled crescendo, which I can then seek to match with a crescendo from the organ. The experience can be intense, and often I can sense the presence of the Holy Spirit in those times, moving us all to a more profound expression of praise.
Jonathan leads the opening hymn from the 2018 Lenten Choir Concert at the University of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart, March 3, 2018.
The Power of Congregational Song to Express Diversity and Hospitality
People sometimes remark to me that the Roman Rite has too little room for creativity, or that it’s too narrowly Western/Italian/Roman in its structure and aesthetic. Depending on the day, I might agree with them. But in reality, there is a tremendous potential for flexibility in the Roman Rite, and, fortunately for us musicians, most of that potential lies in the realm of music. What I love about the flexibility of music in the liturgy is how it can help us celebrate the diversity of creation and offer hospitality to the “others” in our midst. That’s the second thing I think congregational singing can do in a way that other musics cannot.
When I was a kid, the congregation I was part of, though it was almost completely homogenous, made an intentional effort to sing music from a wide variety of Christian cultures around the world. At the time, I just thought that it was fun to sing songs from Brazil, or Tanzania, or Singapore. But what I realize now is that those songs were teaching me about the diversity of God’s people. I was learning that there were people different from me who shared my faith, and who were no less created in the image of God than I. As a leader of song, I want to pass on to others that same idea: the more we reflect the diversity of creation in our music, the more we reflect the image and glory of God.
In a place like Notre Dame, we have an obligation to both uphold our musical tradition and to reflect the diversity of the university’s increasingly global community. That’s part of why I minister, because I love using congregational song to help my community sing its solidarity with other Christian cultures, cultures which can teach us much about how to live the Christian life, and which help us broaden our image of God.
A wise colleague of mine once reminded me that, for our increasingly diverse congregations, including different genres and cultural musics in worship is also a matter of hospitality. Choosing to sing music only from the majority culture in our churches is missing the opportunity to show the “other” among us that they are valued. It’s also a way in which we can enable visitors to the liturgy who are not familiar with our language or songs to participate with us in prayer. As a leader of congregational song, if I can help enable the congregation’s celebration of diversity and its sense of hospitality, then I will.
The Power of Congregational Song to Capture the Human Experience
Lastly, congregational song can enable us to sing through the full range of our experience as people, and can help us have difficult theological conversations. Singing the praise of God is a good and noble venture, of course, but praise is not the only function of congregational song. Hymns and psalms are also there to give us voice when we mourn, or when we are angry at God, or when we feel confused and frustrated by what is going on in the world around us. They are a means of having a theological conversation.
When I choose music for the liturgy, I constantly look for opportunities to bring people into those theological conversations. When our hearts are overflowing with emotion, with grief, with anger, with frustration, we often find ourselves at a loss for words. Songs can be a means of helping us process those emotions, and open us to the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is with us in the act of singing and who intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words alone.
One congregation I served some years ago held an annual “Blue Christmas” liturgy. It was a modified service of evening prayer meant for people who have a hard time with the holidays because of difficult relationships, deaths of family members, or a host of other reasons. One family in particular that I knew planned to attend that service one year was struggling with the death of young child. I also knew based on my conversations with others at the church that many were struggling to make sense of the ongoing school shootings that plague our nation even today. There was an opportunity there to use congregational song both as a tool for healing and as way to give voice to the pain felt by those around me. That year we decided to sing a song gifted to the Church by the Scottish minister John Bell. We sang it quietly in the middle of the service, with resolve, with simultaneous grief and hope:
There is a place prepared for little children, those we once lived for, those we deeply mourn those who from play, from learning and from laughter cruelly were torn.
There is a place where hands which held ours tightly now are released beyond all hurt and fear, healed by that love which also feels our sorrow tear after tear.
There is a place where God will hear our questions, suffer our anger, share our speechless grief, gently repair the innocence of loving and of belief. (2)
At other times, our anger might call us to sing loudly, crying out in discontent, whether in the church or on the front steps of the state capitol building. Recently, more and more people of faith have discovered the power of singing together in and about the public square using texts like this one from Carolyn Winfrey Gillette:
The children come, not sure where they are going; Some little ones have seen their siblings die. They’ve traveled north — a tide that keeps on growing, A stream of life beneath the desert sky. Their welcome here? Detention, overflowing. O Lord of love, now hear your children’s cry!
The children come in search of something better; They’ve traveled here with nothing in their hands. On one boy’s belt, a number carved in leather Leads to a phone, a brother here, a plan.
They come alone — or sometimes band together; They bring a plea that we will understand. O Christ our Lord, you welcomed in the stranger; You blessed the children, telling them to stay. Be in the desert, with the tired and injured; Be at the border where they are afraid. Be on each bus where children sense the danger, As angry crowds are shouting, “Go away!”
God, let each one know justice, peace and welcome — And may your gift of mercy start with me. For unto such as these belongs your kingdom, And in each child, it is your face we see. May we, your church, respond in truth and action, And with you, Lord, say, “Let them come to me.” (3)
These types of powerful texts and these opportunities — to promote empathy, to celebrate diversity, to create a sense of hospitality, and to enable us all to sing through the full range of our human experience — these are why I minister. These are why I spend countless hours in rehearsals and staring down the pages of a hymnal index. Leading the song of church gives me purpose, gives me joy, and most of all, gives me an opportunity to witness to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. I know that, by that grace, the Holy Spirit will continue to guide me in my work here at Notre Dame, so that worshipping together as one, we may sing to the triune God an ever more profound “Alleluia.”
(1) From the hymn “When In Our Music God is Glorified” by Fred Pratt Green, 1972.
(2) From the collection When Grief is Raw: Songs for Times of Sorrow and Bereavement by John L. Bell and Graham Maule.
Karen Schneider Kirner, Choral Program Director and Organist
So often we’re in the routine of doing things that we forget to stop and take stock of why it is we’re doing what we’re doing. We get so caught up in our busyness and keep charging ahead with everyday routines. That’s why I’ve particularly enjoyed this “assignment” of offering a reflection on why I minister at Notre Dame as an organist and choir director. I’ve come up with a “top ten” list to share, but this is in no way comprehensive.
Reason Ten: Gotta love the diversity of skills required for someone working in music ministry! Not only do I direct choirs, play the organ, and occasionally compose music, but I also work with teams of students and colleagues. Other requirements are people skills and inviting students to join in our ministry, along with planning upcoming events. There is never a dull day in the office.
Reason Nine: The words we sing in Church remind us of our values and beliefs, and help keep us on the right and true path where we need to be, oriented towards God. This is why a church musician’s job of selecting texts that we put on the lips of the faithful is so crucial and important. We are more apt to stand up for justice if we are regularly reminded of our values. I see a very high percentage of our choir members going into service-related careers after graduation, and that’s something to be celebrated, living in a world that often seems to lack a moral foundation.
Reason Eight: Saint Augustine had it right when he said, “To Sing is to Pray Twice!” Music has a powerful way to ingrain texts within us and deepen our understanding of them, particularly when they’ve been set to music by inspired composers. Fostering the prayer of any gathered assembly has always been a top priority. Music can easily become a distraction, and the intent is always to keep the focus on the texts being sung, and put these texts on the lips of the assembly.
Reason Seven: We can instantly unite people coming from different cultural backgrounds by doing music of diverse music styles and time periods, languages, and through incorporating a diversity of musical instruments. As part of the universal Church, we want to ensure that truly “all are welcome.” We have a broad palette of music to choose from that can unite us. We’ve seen in recent years how much our country is torn by disunity, so it’s time we all took a stand for unity through whatever means we are able!
Reason Six: Serving as a musician at our Basilica of the Sacred Heart has always been a joy and privilege, that never gets old. The Basilica is truly the heart of our campus, where our community of N.D. and the community of the wider Church gathers to celebrate mass, highlighted feasts of the liturgical year, births, marriages, where we mourn our dead, administer the sacraments of initiation, and ordain men to the priesthood, representing the future of our Church. What a privilege and grace to experience so many powerful moments that really matter, throughout the entire year!
Reason Five: Unity. Liturgical music, whether singing/participating in it, powerfully connects people to one another, whether its with a group of people who know each other as in a choir that meets regularly, or a disparate group of people who will only all be together a single time, coming from many different places and walks of life. Music is a God-given instrument that connects us not only to each other, but us to God. It seems that people have grown more isolated with the rise of technology that was oddly designed to connect us, so we need music more than ever to bring us together. Did you know that scientific studies show that when a group of people sing together, their heartbeats often align? Singing is also found to decrease stress, depression, and anxiety, and gives us a sense we are part of something much bigger than ourselves, which is the Universal Church!
Reason Four: Music does save lives! This may seem like an overstatement, but I’ve witnessed this countless times. For those battling addictions, depression, loneliness or anxieties, not only does the act of singing elevate our spirits, but choir members are held accountable to the larger group, where it’s important to show up on a regular basis, and members are instantly part of a loving, nurturing group that wants to see each and every member succeed. Singing in a choir or making music with another group of people is one of the best ways to stay healthy and be emotionally supported when we are living in very challenging times.
Reason Three: It’s all about the PEOPLE. When I reflect back on my twenty years in music ministry here at N.D., it’s the names and faces of those I’ve worked with that matter the most. So many students who were involved in sacred music here have continued lives of service after they leave this place, whether they are doing this full-time or part-time. Numerous couples have met/married through participating in our choirs. A good number of men have entered the priesthood. Through our choir pilgrimage tours domestic and around the world, we almost exclusively stay with families from the parishes we are visiting, who give us unique insights about their own Christian communities. What a gift!
Reason Two: Plain and simply, for evangelization! Pope Francis said this best in his 2013 document, Evangelii Gaudium, or The Joy of the Gospel. If you haven’t read this yet, it’s well worth a read. In my case, I’m serving countless pilgrims who make their way each year to our beautiful Basilica of the Sacred Heart, connecting young people more deeply with their faith through music and participation in our choirs, or taking our choirs to sing for our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated or homeless. God is with us in every situation we may find ourselves in life, and my most powerful experiences have often been going “off the beaten path.”
Reason One: FAMILY. Family is created through our choirs and working closely with colleagues. The great thing about N.D. is that people keep coming back to this place, not only for football, but for things that really matter, like weddings, baptisms, for the Triduum, and times of loss, to be grounded anew in what drew them to this place initially: our faith in Jesus Christ. We are rooted in our Catholic faith, sent forth with hope, love and joy to bring to the world!
Wednesday, May 16, 2018, was an amazing day. I was able to celebrate my Godson Joey’s graduation from Pine Creek High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado. As Joey walked across the stage on a sunny Colorado day, I beamed with joy as I flashed back to the many fond memories I have with him: watching him learn to walk, fall and skin his knees, showing him around the Notre Dame campus, exploring the Science Museum in Chicago, hiking the Rockies, his First Communion and Confirmation, experiencing the ups and downs of school, sharing our love for music, and attending his band competition- just to name a few. As he walked down the steps of the stage, he was all smiles and filled with excitement for his next step of attending college at Colorado State in Fort Collins.
Joey and I were later shown a photo of me holding him at his Baptism. Joey blushed and I was shocked by how young I looked with a beard and thin frame. Where does time go? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I have been held by God, even now. It is never too late to let yourself be loved by God.
Jesus became human and can identify that we have our ups and downs. He cried at the death of his friend Lazarus, was angry when the temple officials cheated the poor, was frustrated when the disciples did not understand that he came to serve and wash feet, and was not going to establish a political kingdom where the Jews would be prosperous and on top. Jesus sweat blood at the thought of his cross and the pain and torture he would soon experience. He enjoyed meals and weddings, and loved being with friends just as you and I do.
Jesus also felt he was held by God and we know this from scripture. After Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, God said, “You are my Beloved Son and with you I am well pleased.” On Mount Tabor, shortly before he was heading to Jerusalem where Jesus would suffer and die, God appeared to Peter, James, and John and again voiced, “Listen to Jesus, with Him I am well pleased.” In prayer, Jesus opened his heart to share his thoughts and feelings with God. He would feel God holding him and assuring that he was there to walk with him through the disappointments, the grief in losing Lazarus, the frustration in the disciples and even his own family’s lack of knowing who he really was.
I love being a priest and have been serving God and God’s People for over 38 years. I love serving the 5,000 children of God here at Notre Dame for the past 5 years. Yet, I have also had many ups and downs over the years. I’ve felt the sting of grief when my mother and father died and I still miss them dearly. My brother, Tom, and sister, Barb, are very dear to me along with their children and grandchildren. They have all loved me over and over again- I am deeply blessed.
On the other hand, I have also been hurt by the people I have served and call family, and I have experienced depression and loneliness along the way. However, I have always been able to be open with God and share these thoughts and feelings. Sometimes God seems distant and I feel like I am in a desert just as Jesus was. I have felt temptation, but honestly, I have never felt abandoned or rejected by God. Our God is a God of love.
As University Staff Chaplain, I was recently talking with a staff member who shared that he grew up with a very fearful sense of a God who would be out to punish if you did not obey the commandments or follow the laws of the Church. His pastor spoke only about a God who judge’s people and never talked about a God who forgives or gives people hope in Christ. It is my mission to share this hope.
The blessing of Spiritual Companions have helped me to come back to God and open my heart. Sometimes family, friends, or often a stranger would say to me after Mass “Father, this parish is one of the most welcoming I have ever attended. I have loved your homilies and your leadership is outstanding. I am joining.” A message such as this came at a time when I was struggling for a number of reasons. I believe in Divine Providence and that God sends us people and events that are not just coincidence but God’s way of saying, “I am with you and holding you” as if you were an infant- even if you are 66 years old.
Brett Perkins, Assistant Director for Sacramental Preparation & Catechesis
“The results of your physical came back, and I’m sorry to say that you have cancer.” These are never the words that you want to hear from your doctor. They are especially devastating to hear when you’re an otherwise healthy 18 year old who is flying high after graduating from high school and preparing to enter Notre Dame as a freshman that fall. Yet these are precisely the words I was hearing from my doctor on that hot, humid central Illinois afternoon in June 1997. In that moment, I felt disconnected from myself, as though I was floating above the room and looking down into that doctor’s office, like I was somehow a passive onlooker to some other person’s misfortune. Yet this was my diagnosis, not someone else’s. Questions raced through my mind. Now what? Was college out of the question? Would I even be alive to go to college? But the doctor wasn’t finished.
“I know this is hard to wrap your mind around,” the doctor continued, “but I’d like to propose that we take you over to the hospital for surgery ASAP, to remove the tumor.”
“ASAP? You mean, like, in the next day or two?”
“No, like this afternoon. I’ll be heading out of town tomorrow and this tumor really needs to be dealt with now.”
“Ok, doctor, uh, whatever you think.”
And off we went to prep for surgery at the local Catholic hospital.
As I gradually awoke in the hospital room after surgery, I remember the sudden release of so many tears as emotions tied to pain and fear, frustration and anxiety rushed into my consciousness. Then, lying in that hospital bed, I had what is to this day one of the most profound encounters with the love of God that I have ever had in my life. As my eyes began to focus as I struggled against the anesthesia, my eyes were drawn like a magnet to the crucifix on the wall at the foot of the bed. In the midst of my own profound brokenness and without clarity on what my future would hold, I looked at our Lord’s own body, broken on the cross. Bringing His suffering into dialogue with my own, I became aware in some small way of what Jesus must have felt on that first Good Friday. Once again, tears began to stream, yet this time they were coming not from pain or fear, but from becoming personally aware of just what Jesus had done for me by dying on that cross. I was also made aware, in that instant, of my own unresponsiveness and passivity in the face of such love: the Lord knew well that I had plenty of mess-ups and sins in my life, and yet His love for me was so much greater than any sin I could ever commit. While I wouldn’t have been able to reference it then, one of my favorite Scriptures today reflects well the life-altering realization I had in that hospital bed:
For Christ, while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly. Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person one might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)
In that room at St. Mary’s Hospital in Decatur, Illinois, I experienced personally the mercy and love of Jesus for me. I came to understand that He would see me through my cancer, whatever the outcome; I had nothing to worry about, for He had conquered death and brought new life to even the darkness of the cross. While I had grown up in a Christian household, this was perhaps the first moment that my faith “clicked” for me, when I experienced for myself God’s faithfulness, tenderness, and loving kindness. In some small way, I also began to sense that I would be called to share this love of God with everyone, though I couldn’t have imagined then what form that might take.
Fast forward to 2004. In the seven years that had passed, I’d beaten cancer, had an incredible experience of collegiate life at Notre Dame, and graduated with a major in finance and a minor in theology. While at Notre Dame, I’d also become Catholic. A friend’s invitation to Mass got that ball rolling, and there I encountered again the love of Jesus giving Himself to us fully in the Holy Eucharist, an encounter that was only reinforced by the witness of the lives of so many on-fire Catholics I’d met at Notre Dame, especially through the RCIA process. Upon graduation, I had taken a job with a prestigious financial consulting firm and, alongside dozens of friends, made the move to Chicago. Everything in life seemed to be landing perfectly for me…yet I knew that something deep down was missing. A phone call I received in July 2004 from one of my Campus Ministry mentors helped me name that void, when she invited me to consider coming back to Notre Dame to work in…Campus Ministry. Whoa. This was not a part of the life plan I’d worked out for myself. What could God possibly be doing now in the midst of my otherwise perfect life? Countless hours of recollection and prayerful discernment followed, including many conversations with others. In the course of that discernment, and through others’ affirmation of my gifts, God made one thing abundantly clear to me: I had an explicit call to ministry in my life, and that the trajectory of my life had indeed been leading me to this decision point. I knew what I had to do.
I’m now completing my fourteenth year of young adult ministry at Notre Dame. Here, I finally discovered my heart’s desire: to accompany young adults as they, too, searched for meaning and grace in their lives. Looking back on my experience of God throughout my life, I can now explain why I minister. I minister because I have experienced personally the love and mercy of Jesus Christ, to whom I owe my life, and I desire only to lead others to an encounter with that same love and mercy. There is no other reason that I am where I am today, except for the grace of God and my simple openness to follow where He was leading me. But I don’t minister simply out of nostalgia for one particular experience of God from 20+ years ago. No, I minister because God has never stopped sending His Son to me (and to all) whenever I encounter Him anew in prayer, in Scripture, in family and friends, in those I serve, and especially when I receive Him in Holy Communion at Mass each day. Nope, I’m no saint; I’m a work in progress like everyone else. But I know that it is precisely because I remain open to encountering the love and mercy of Jesus each day that I have the courage and strength to keep building God’s Kingdom, one person at a time, and no matter what else life throws my way.
For the past five years in Campus Ministry, my primary work has been to direct the very ministry that helped me come home to the Catholic Church, the RCIA Process. With each new group of students, I am blessed to hear the stories of individuals who have had their own “aha” moments, who have encountered God and felt the nudge of a loving Father who calls them to investigate the Catholic Christian faith or go deeper in their previous faith commitment. I hear stories of divine Providence that led them here to Notre Dame, perhaps firstly for academic pursuits but then, sometimes quite unexpectedly, to discover the God who fulfills the deepest longings of their hearts. I then have the distinct pleasure of accompanying them as they make their own response in faith, which is then sealed in covenant through the celebration of the Sacraments of Initiation at the Basilica each year. I minister in RCIA because of joy, which I experience whenever new intentional disciples of Jesus are launched out into our world and then go off to build the Kingdom of God wherever they are planted, that even more might come to know, love, and serve God. Each time we celebrate the Sacraments with one of my RCIA cohorts, I’m reminded of my own journey that God began in me so many years ago. And it is precisely because of my own experience of the mercy and love of Jesus, that day in the hospital and every day since, that I minister today.
“The most beautiful and stirring adventure that can happen to you is the personal meeting with Jesus, who is the only one who gives real meaning to our lives.” – Pope St. John Paul II
Mike Urbaniak, Assistant Director of Leadership Formation
As I look out my Coleman-Morse window, out on to South Quad here at Notre Dame, the winter white has finally turned into budding green. The trudging and scurrying through snow and cold has given way to frisbees, Spike-ball, and soaking up the warmth of the sun. It is this transformation each year that signals the end of another academic year and the departure of another decorated class of graduates. In Campus Ministry, it means that we must say farewell to another year of Anchor Senior Interns, thankful for the incredible work they have done and excited for what they have to offer the world beyond zip code 46556.
Being the director of the Anchor Senior Internship in Campus Ministry, I have the unique privilege of walking alongside these eleven students on their yearlong journey as student and minister. I have seen their exaltation in the execution of a great event. I have heard the challenge of cancellations and misunderstandings in communication. I have sat with the tears of stress, anxiety, and grief. I have witnessed the breakthroughs in discipleship. I have celebrated the accomplishments of the present and the acceptance of future opportunities. It is bittersweet to see this time come to an end. Mostly, however, I’m simply proud. I’m proud to have been a part of shaping this year with them, doing what I could to help them grow, but mostly relying on the Holy Spirit to guide their formation into the likeness of Christ.
I imagine Jesus might have felt this somewhat as he sent his disciples out at the end of the Gospel of Matthew:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Jesus sends them out with purpose and pretty clear direction. I don’t believe he would do that if he wasn’t proud of them or believed that they couldn’t do the job. Those disciples were sent out to change the world. And, they aren’t sent out on their own, but Jesus reminds them that he is always with them.
I am proud to send out our interns because I too know that they can change the world. They are capable and skilled. They are gritty and resilient. They are compassionate and empathetic. Most importantly, they have Jesus with them, always. I have seen their growth in relationship with Him this year and that makes the “bittersweet”-ness of sending them out more sweet than bitter.
As I’ve stated before, these students are called our Anchor Senior Interns, and as I close out my reflection I’d like to make one last note for anyone reading this. Many of you will know that the anchor is an ancient sign of Christian hope. This is also seen in the cross and anchors present on campus, a symbol of the Congregation of Holy Cross, the founders of Notre Dame, whose motto is “Hail the Cross, our only hope”. If you ever have any doubt about the future of our world or our Church, I’d be happy to set you up to have coffee with one of these fine young men and women. They are my hope. By no means are they perfect (neither am I!). But, they are men and women who think deeply, pray fiercely, and care compassionately. They are doing their best to live lives integrated with the Gospel. They seek justice and mercy. They care about those who are most vulnerable and constantly ask how to serve them better. We are so fortunate to have them officially with us for a year, but even more fortunate that they are heading out beyond our campus into the world to glorify God with their lives as ministers, doctors, consultants, teachers, engineers, business people, and more. I give thanks to God for them especially this day and pray for God’s Spirit to continue to guide them, to make disciples of all nations.
The traditional Catholic prayer before meals can sometimes get a little lost on us in its ritual nature, as the Old English terminology had for my sister when she was younger. My own prayer before meals can often be hurried in my busy day-to day-life and even at times apathetic, as if I were actually praying “and these, I guess”. Recently, though, I was given the opportunity to be drawn out of the ritual motions and words of the prayer at the dinner table in Rungsted Kyst, Denmark.
This past semester I lived with a wonderful host family in the small coastal suburb of the capital, Copenhagen. My family included several host siblings: 10 and 14 year old sisters (Amalie and Victoria), 17 year old brother (Gustav) and, arguably my favorite, the small dog (Luna). One of my favorite parts of living with them was our hyggeligt nightly family dinner.
I was used to praying before meals, as I had always been taught to by my family, and it was something that I had continued to do at Notre Dame. My host family, though Christian, were not particularly religious and did not pray before meals. Being a guest in their house, I did not want to seem overly religious and make them uncomfortable, so I snuck in my prayer before our dinners while no one was looking. My secretive prayers continued for some time until my youngest host sister, Amalie, noticed and asked my host mom what I was doing, though she said it in Danish. My host mom asked me if I was in fact praying, laughing a bit at my shyness, and was surprised that so much time had passed with no one having noticed. After my host family found out that I always prayed before meals they would pause in serving the food when they saw me begin to make the sign of the cross. It was occasionally rather uncomfortable, as they stared at me in a bit of wonder and waited to continue what they were doing until I was done. I was happy, though, that I no longer had to sneak in my prayer and it really made me stop and think about the prayer I was saying, as well as make sure I remembered to pray it.
Nearing my last week with my host family in December, after I finished praying, Gustav asked me why I prayed before meals. I hadn’t realized what a mysterious thing prayer could be to someone who had never really experienced it in this way, as it had always been a part of my mealtime ritual. I told him that it was an act of thanksgiving. It was a recognition that I am blessed to have the meal sitting before me as well as the family surrounding me. In praying I am showing gratitude for all those whose labor went into the food reaching my plate while also praying that those who were not as lucky as me would be fed. Gustav’s response struck me in his immediate acceptance, as he said that he thought the whole family should begin to pray before meals along with me if that is what it meant.
I, like I think many Christians do, heard about missionaries converting people in foreign lands and had a longing to go out into the world and do these awesome deeds, but I hadn’t realized that in praying before meals in the tiny suburb of Copenhagen, Denmark, I truly was a missionary. Although I did not directly preach the words of the Gospels or bring my host family to Mass with me, in modeling a way that faith had moved me to reconsider a part of my daily life, the meal, I believe that I was able to show how my faith is one of gratitude and thanksgiving.
I realize now, though, that I left out an important part in my description of my prayer- that I was also praying with the gratitude for the space to be able to show my faith and for having been raised in a family and community that taught me the very faith I was able to demonstrate. I regret not having been more upfront about my faith from the beginning to my host family, as I might have been able to have the conversation about prayer and more with my host brother long before the eve of my departure.
I don’t think that I will ever fully be able to see my mealtime prayer without this new lens of mission and purposeful gratitude, and I hope I continue to often find myself sitting at a dinner table with the choice to pray in secret or to profess my faith so that I do not forget the great blessing that is prayer.
Bless us, O Lord, and these thy gifts which we continue to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord. Amen.