Time for a small confession:
In 2005 I was missioned to a small city called Calera de Tango just outside of Santiago, Chile where I would spend close to a year on my tertianship experience. For those of you that don’t know, tertianship is the final stage of religious formation for a Jesuit and usually takes place a few years after being ordained a priest. Of all the things that you do during those nine months, nothing is more important than the 30-day Spiritual Exercises. Those four intense weeks of silence are an opportunity to focus on prayer and your relationship with God and to evaluate where you are good and where you are not so good.
It was right in the middle of this experience where I discovered something extraordinary about my life that helped put a lot of things in perspective. My retreat director, a Columbian priest by the name of Fr. Alvaro Restrepo, asked me to give some thought and prayer to discovering what my root sin was. Now, for those of you who don’t know, a root sin is that one weakness or fault that we suffer from that seems to be at the root or heart of every other sin. Lying and cheating and stealing may all be sins, but at the end of the day, there is something even bigger behind it all that motivates the lying and the cheating and the stealing.
I confess that in all my years of Catholic education and all my years of religious formation, I had never given this any thought. I had not even heard of the concept of a “root sin.” But it made total sense. It made sense that there is a kind of evil wizard sin behind the curtain that pulls the strings and calls the shots. I could also see how discovering the root was important. If I discovered my root sin, then I could work on destroying it and thus all the others would go down with it. It’s like trying to kill a weed. You can spend years simply clipping the leaves every time they pop up or you can tear out the root.
So, I began to dig and dig to discover the one weakness that was at the very core of all my weaknesses.
I discovered that my root sin is fear. That’s right, fear. I realized, after evaluating all my recurring and troubling sins, the sins I brought up in confession over and over again, what motivated them was fear. The question is, “fear of what?” Well, I discovered that as well. It was fear of being rejected, of not being liked, of not being accepted. The reason why I lied on occasion was because I was afraid of being rejected for telling the truth. The reason why I cheated was because I was afraid of failure. As a matter of fact, the fear factor was so engrained in my personality, that I even began to notice that many of the good things I did were also motivated by that very fear. I obeyed my parents because I was afraid of letting them down. I went to mass every Sunday because I was afraid of letting God down. I even realized that I worked hard to preach great sermons because of the fear of people thinking I was boring or a bad priest.
What this did for me was open my eyes to the fact that my intentions, for as good as they may have seemed to most, were not all that pure, not all that holy.
Here’s what happened… when tertianship was over and I was reassigned to Miami, I went back to celebrating mass at Good Shepherd. The first Sunday after my return, I was asked to celebrate the 5:30 p.m. mass. I had worked very hard to prepare a great homily, a kind of “Fr. Willie is back” homily that would knock people’s socks off. As I stood at the entrance of the church, waiting for mass to start, a young girl came up to me, gave me a big hug and told me how excited she was that I was back. She told me she was excited because I preached the greatest homilies and that she had not gone back to mass since I had left. She said that now that I was back, she wanted to go to mass again. I confess that my immediate response was to be incredibly flattered. And then it hit me. Here we go again. Is it about me or is it about God?
The mass began and the opening prayer was prayed. The readers came up to read and then the Deacon got up to proclaim the gospel. When the Deacon had finished, he sat down, and waited for me to get up and preach, but I didn’t. I just sat there in silence. The people were dumbfounded, you could hear a pin drop. Occasionally someone would cough, breaking the silence. The Deacon at one point turns to me and quietly asks, “aren’t you going to preach?” I simply nodded no with my eyes closed. Then after what seemed like an eternity, I got up and asked the congregation to stand to pray the profession of faith. And the mass continued.
At the end of mass, just before the final blessing, I closed the missal and walked out to the congregation. I asked, “please raise your hand how many of you are surprised that at the moment of the homily I just sat there and didn’t preach?” Everyone raised their hand. Then I asked, “please raise your hand, how many of you are leaving mass today disappointed that you didn’t hear a great homily?” Once again, everyone raised their hand. Then I said, “you’re telling me that after coming together as a family to pray, after worshipping the Lord, after having received the body and blood of Christ, the greatest gift left to us by Jesus Christ, you leave disappointed? I think something is wrong here.” Then I simply turned around, gave the final blessing, and walked off.
Here’s the thing, it’s not about me, it’s about Jesus. It’s not about the quality of my preaching or the relevance of my stories or the humor of my jokes… it’s about Jesus. Now, don’t get me wrong. Those things help, I get it, but at the end of the day what matters is Jesus Christ. What matters is the truth, the way, the life, what matter is Christ.
The same applies to your Belen education. While fancy dining halls and Olympic size pools and iPads help; while great teachers and coaches, committed alumni, and a 164-year legacy help; what matters, at the end of the day, is Jesus Christ.
On the first day of your senior year, I stood in front of the whole school community and told you that the theme of the academic year was “run to the fire.” I encouraged you to be men of character and service and insisted that where there was a need, whenever a problem arose, whenever a situation presented itself that needed your help, you “run to the fire.” We posted the catchy phrase on our bulletin boards and media screens, we mentioned it in speeches and homilies, we even embroidered it on your senior banner in beautiful gold letters. Well, now it is time to clearly state what the fire actually is, it’s Jesus Christ. Where there is the fire of poverty, Jesus is there; where there is a brother in need, Jesus is there; where there is a cancer to be cured, a cause to be fought, a mistake to be remedied, Jesus is there. I tell you now, don’t simply run to the fire, run to Jesus.
And beware, don’t let your fear get in the way of fulfilling your mission to run. The fear of rejection, the fear of being unaccepted or ridiculed is clearly the enemy. That fear is for the weak and I assure you that no great man throughout the history of our world allowed that fear to keep him from running to the fire. Don’t allow the expectations of the masses, the pressure of the popular, or the praise of the misguided keep you from standing up for the way, the truth, and the life. Don’t let Harvard or Cornell or UF or FIU keep you from Jesus Christ. I say to you the same thing St. Pope John Paul II said to the crowds in Rome at the inauguration of his papacy in October, 1978:
“Do not be afraid to welcome Christ and accept his power. Help all those who wish to serve Christ and with Christ's power to serve the human person and the whole of mankind. Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of States, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows ‘what is in man.’ He alone knows it.”
As I stand here before you on this beautiful night and gaze at the 248 young men who will soon be leaving Belen Jesuit after years of study and work, I encourage you my brothers to not be afraid. Let love be your guide. Let it determine what you do and how you do it. Use what you have learned and what is left to be learned to save the world, to make it better and safer and holier. Make a difference. Listen to the words of Jesus in today’s gospel when he asks, “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?”
I leave you with the words of author Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.' We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
My brothers, do not be afraid to let your light shine before all. Run to the fire and let the world see what a true Belen man, a man for others, is all about. As the day of your graduation slowly approaches and you walk across that stage towards me to receive your diploma, let it be not only a written testament of your academic and intellectual achievement, but a testament of your compassion, your love, and your desire to serve. Let it be a testament of your willingness to run to the fire.
Our Lady of Belen… pray for us.