The Nativity of John the Baptist
It’s been a long goodbye. (Although I must confess that it’s not quite over yet – while I formally step down as pastor this week, I’ll be around for much of July.) It’s been 5 months since I announced that Bishop Estévez had asked me to return to graduate school, with the goal of teaching moral theology at our seminary in Boynton Beach a couple of years from now. When I made the announcement, I said that there would be time later to say farewell, but now that the time has come, I’m finding it difficult to do so. When people have asked me how I feel about this new adventure, I’ve said, “Excited, nervous, and sad.” Today the sadness predominates. This parish means that much to me. You mean that much to me.
The journey to reach this point, of course, has been even longer. I suppose it goes back to when I first came into existence: The Lord tells the prophet Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” and He tells that to us as well. I was first consecrated to God at my Baptism in northern Indiana when I was just a few weeks old. The journey continued with my 1st Holy Communion in New Jersey in the early 1970s, and took another step with my Confirmation here in Jacksonville. And then it took a long pause. Sure, I came from a strong Catholic family, was an altar server right here at Holy Family for several years, and went to Bishop Kenny High School, but when the time came for college I followed my brothers in deciding to become an engineer.
But God wasn’t finished with me yet. As Msgr. Logan told me many years ago, “If the good Lord wants you, He’ll find a way to get you.” I admit that I had a sense of a calling to priesthood since I was a teenager. When I was an altar boy, I was fascinated by the Eucharist – there was a power there that I didn’t understand but knew was vitally important. And during my freshman year of college, when I was really struggling, I once confided to a friend, who was himself a devout evangelical Christian, that I thought I was supposed to be a priest.
But every time the thought came up, I would put it aside. I wanted a “normal” life – whatever that might mean! Until 1994. That’s when I read one of the books that changed my life (although the author probably didn’t intend it in quite this way). I had always had a keen interest in mythology and world religions, even when I was wandering away from the Church. And one day I picked up The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell. This was the book that supposedly inspired George Lucas to create “Star Wars.” It tells of the “hero’s journey,” with common themes that can be found across cultures: For example, there is often the wise mentor who disappears midway through the story so that the hero can learn his own strengths; the descent into dark places beneath the earth to face one’s fear of death; the monster who represents the forces of evil that exist within us and which must be conquered; the ascent, physical or spiritual, into heavenly realms. One section of the book talks about trees – there’s the Buddha sitting beneath the Bodhi tree to attain enlightenment; the Norse god Odin hanging from Yggdrasil, the great ash tree at the center of the universe, sacrificing himself to himself to gain the knowledge of the runes; and Christ on the tree of the Cross, reconciling heaven and earth.
When I read this, I felt like I had been struck by a bolt of lightning. Before this, I had thought that Christianity was mainly about morality, the rules for living a good life and earning your way into heaven. Now I saw that it also had a much deeper meaning – it was ultimately about reconciliation, between God and humanity, and among ourselves. My first response to this new understanding was, “I’ve got to tell people about this!” I returned to Church, going to confession for the 1st time in years, and began considering seminary.
As I’ve told you before, though, I continued to resist. It reminds me of when I would visit our parish school after I became pastor, and the children would ask me, “Why did you want to become a priest?” And my answer was always the same: “I didn’t!” But I was called, and it was only when I finally responded to the call that I began to have any peace in my life. But I still needed help along the way. I’m a “fixer,” and when I see something wrong, I immediately want to plunge in and start doing something to make it right, even if it frequently makes things even worse. I needed to learn patience.
The first lesson in patience I received was from Fr. Al Giaquinto, a spiritual director at the seminary who lived across the hall from me. He has since passed on, but he was a wise old priest who could read you like a book. I’ll never forget the first time I met with him. He listened to me for a while, then shook his head with a sly smile and, pointing to an African violet growing on the windowsill, said, “Tim, you want to figure everything out, but there is more mystery in that flower than you will ever be able to comprehend.”
Then there was Fr. David Thayer, who was my spiritual director for my last few years of seminary, and who remains a good friend. Some of you may remember him – I invited Fr. Thayer to give a parish mission in Lent of 2011, my first year at Holy Family. I was talking to him one day about social justice, about how various institutions in our society need to be reformed if the world is to become a better place. He responded by saying that that was all well and good, but it would never really get to the heart of the matter; the fundamental problem in our society, he argued, is that so many people simply feel unloved. I scoffed at this at first, but I have come to realize over the years that there is much truth in what he said.
I received confirmation of this in 1998, when I spent a summer in Costa Rica attempting to learn Spanish. It was there that I experienced what I call my 2nd conversion, when I had what I can only describe as an encounter with the living God. It’s impossible to explain what an experience like this is like; suffice it to say that He revealed Himself as being both infinitely powerful, and infinitely loving. For several weeks I felt like I was walking on air, as I recognized His presence and realized that He was nothing but love, through and through. Even though I’ve never had another experience like it since then, I’ve staked my life on it, because it is true, and it is the key to understanding our life on this earth and attaining true happiness now and in the life to come.
I have tried to be a witness to this as a priest and as a pastor.
When I was ordained a priest in 2000, Bishop Snyder invited my friend Fr. Thayer to preach. I still remember two things he said in his homily. First, “You are called to be a shepherd, but that does not mean that you can treat the people like sheep.” I hope I have lived up to that. The other was this: “Remember that there is only one Messiah, and you are not He”!
Which brings us to St. John the Baptist, whose birth we celebrate today. He constantly reminded people that he was not the Messiah. He said that he was not worthy to untie the straps of His sandals. He was the Bridegroom’s friend, not the Bridegroom Himself. He was a lamp, but not the Light. He was a voice that lasts for a moment, not the eternal Word that remains in the mind and heart when the voice has fallen silent. He said of Jesus, “He must increase, while I must decrease.” And when he finally saw Christ, he told his own disciples to follow Him instead, telling them, “Behold the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sin of the world.”
When I was in Costa Rica, the parish I attended was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and since then I have taken him as a patron, and as a model. I pray that, in my time with you, I have followed St. John’s example and simply pointed the way to Christ for you, so that you can experience the power of His love and mercy, that you can make Him the center of your life, and that you can know the joy that He longs to give you.
If, by the grace of God, I have been able to do this, then I can know that, whatever the future may bring, I have faithfully responded to His call. Sometimes I have failed at this task – and for this, I ask your forgiveness. I am a sinner, redeemed but still on the way to salvation. This is why I have often asked you to pray for my continued conversion, and I ask you to do so again as I prepare to move on to the next stage of my ministry. At the same time, I want to thank you for the witness you have given me. Your faithfulness, your devotion, your generosity, and your kindness have been an inspiration to me, and a tremendous source of healing. I will never forget you, or the good work the Lord continues to accomplish through you.
I ask as well that you pray for Fr. David Keegan as he comes to Holy Family this week. He will not only be leading this parish, but he is also the Vocations Director for the diocese; he is going to have a lot on his plate, and he will need your support. And finally, let us pray for each other, recognizing that though we will be separated for a time, we still share a common journey towards the One who loves us and wants us become saints. So, growing ever closer to Christ, and serving Him in one another, may we finally be united with Him and one another when we reach journey’s end.