A few years ago over coffee with some good friends, a crazy idea was born, to invite all of my former students to come together just before Christmas to pray together, to feed the hungry and to share in each other's company. Four years later I can say with great joy that each year on December 22nd hundreds of young people have gathered in a tiny Church in the heart of Manchester to do just that, to feed the hungry, to pray together and to share in the joy of the season.
This year, as every year, I have been moved to tears to see so many familiar faces united in faith and in action. Since early November I have been furiously working to send out personalized Christmas cards, invitations, facebook invites and the like. I have kept my formation, prayer life and studies at the forefront, but have dedicated a great deal of my personal time to this endeavor, which has taken me away from my blog, etc... This year when December 22nd rolled around hundreds of young people answered the invitations and the call, and came once again, filling Blessed Sacrament Parish to the fire coded limit.
I was grateful for all who came, and grateful that this special night was able to be shared with Bishop Peter Labasci, our new bishop in Manchester. He graciously accepted an invitation to attend, but insisted on sitting quietly off to the side, so as not to draw away any attention. The Bishop came to support our young people and in doing so he proved inspirational yet again.
Below is the reflection I offered at the end of Mass that night. I do hope you enjoy!
I would like to begin by thanking Father John and Brother Charles for being such gracious hosts to us all during this most busy week before Christmas. Bishop Labasci, Reverend Fathers, our most talented musicians, gathered friends, thank you all for coming out here on this cold winters night, and thank for your presence here, it not only lifts my heart, and strengthens my spirit, it also warms the very being and essence of us all, gathered in this place, on this night.
My young friends, I would like to thank you in a special way for being here tonight. Your presence not only brings joy to my heart, it also fills my Spirit with hope. On this night, just days from Christmas, when many of you are just returning home for the first time since a busy semester and following intense exams, you have come here, to this special place, in prayer. Some of you, have even come this very night, directly from the airport. Your presence, here, speaks more profoundly then any words that I could ever share, and the gift you give by your presence, and by your very person, has more value than the greatest of treasures under any tree. A great American president once said, that the future favors the bold. My young friends, on this night, you have chosen to boldly witness the beauty of your faith and the depths of your love, and the future, favors your Hope.
Two weeks ago I was serving Mass at a parish in Baltimore as part of my regular seminary responsibilities, when something strange occurred, something unplanned and unexpected. I was seated quietly in the sanctuary as the priest and Eucharistic ministers began to distribute communion, my eyes were closed and I was quietly reflecting and enjoying the peace. When suddenly I heard a voice call my name. Andrew, Andrew it kept whispering.
At first I thought to myself this is it. This is that defining moment in prayer when I hear the very whisper of God. The more I sat the more I realized that that voice that kept calling my name sounded strangely like the Altar server seated next to me. As I looked up, he pointed me to the cantor who was also whispering my name and calling me towards her. I thought to myself, this is strange why would the cantor be calling me. Ahhh, perhaps it is a glass of water she needs. But as I got closer she began to frantically point to the music. Once again I thought to myself, that is funny, why is she pointing at music, was I singing the along with the wrong words.
Then, she looked deep into my eyes, with fear in her own, and she said the most horrific words I could ever hear, words that struck fear into the heart of my soul, and threatened to send me running out of the very Church I served. She looked at me square in the eyes and said “ I have an emergency, you are cantor now.”
In one swift moment, I had gone from the complete peace and comfort of my prayer to the horrors of singing before a full church, and a pew full of my friends who just happened to be visiting that morning. She did not reappear and my awkward moment was stretched out for what seemed like eternity. The microphone was working well and picked up every quiver in my voice. The Church was packed, I was nervously gripping the hymnal and putting on a fake smile, all the while the very horror and panic that struck my heart, was now striking the ears of all those gathered that fateful morning, that moment the cantor called me by name.
This very night God has called us each by name, to be here, to be present, together in our prayer, our service to the poor, and our friendship with one another. He was present three years ago when the dream of creating this evening was born over a cup off coffee I shared with some good friends, and former students visiting me at the seminary in Baltimore. When I said do you think we can make it happen, do you think we create a beautiful night, when young people who once journeyed together, and whose journeys now take them so many different places, return home to this place, to the Church, to pray together once more, and to journey together for a little while, and to be the love that Christ calls us to be and to be together as family once more, so that when our journeys call upon us again, we can rekindle the fire of faith, and the warmth of love which dwelt among us on Christmas morning, and dwells among us this night.
As people of faith we know that these are not the only reasons God calls us together this night. We know that as our lives move on and take us so many different places, he still speaks to our hearts and whispers to our souls. God calls us each by name. He called the shepherds who watched over their flocks, so that they would encounter the new born king. He called the Magi, the three Kings and led them to a tiny stable. He called Mary and Joseph and asked them to tenderly care for the ultimate gift of love. And this night he calls each of us from wherever we are, he calls us, those that know this place, this church well, he calls those who have been strangers, those who have been lost, and those that have never felt the warm embrace of God’s love.
He reaches deep into our hearts and calls us to not only to witness the Gospel to the waiting world, but also to be a resplendent fire that goes and lights the world ablaze with love. He calls us to lay down our nets, to leave our flocks, to follow the star, to surrender our lives to his will, to answer his call and come follow him.
That surrendering, that answering of the call, which God shares with us this night requires each of us to ask not what we want, wish, hope and dream, but rather to ask what it is that God has in store for us, and what it is he calls us to be. Sometimes, that call will lead us away from all that we know and love, and sometimes it leads right where we always knew we would be. Whatever the case may be, it always lead us right to where our hearts find rest. The challenge for us all tonight, whether we are far along our life’s journey or just beginning, is to look deep within and find God’s voice. And answer yes to his invitation to come follow him, to be unafraid to consider where it may take you, and to be humble enough to consider it might not be where you expect, it may be to a seminary or to a classroom, to a family or a factory, or right in this Church this night.
As we prepare for the joy of Christmas which waits ahead, may we courageously answer his call, and accept his invitation to bring love into the world, just as Mary did. And may we reflect His light and love to the world which waits.
God Bless you all and Merry Christmas.