Start with the Sand

Monday, The First Week of Advent

gobi-desert-sand

Is peace among nations possible? Given both the current state of this nation and the record of world history the probability seems bleak. Yet, every year, all around the world on the first weekday of the Advent season, Christians hear Isaiah’s prophecy of nations coming together in peace. And what does the prophet say will bring about this peace? It is the end of war.

Those who learn the ways of the Lord, Isaiah tells us, have no cause to “raise the sword against another” and those who seek to walk in the Lord’s path don’t need to “train for war again.” The prophet’s poetic imagery even suggests a post-war industry that would conserve resources and nourish its inhabitants:  the weapons of war and death will be transformed into agrarian tools such as plows and pruning hooks. [IS 2:1-5]

In his vision for the future of  Judah and Jerusalem, the prophet proclaimed that all nations will “stream towards” the Lord’s mountain; men and women would say to one another: “Come, let us climb the LORD’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths.” [IS 2:3]

Can we imagine our world with its myriad cultures, political systems, economies, religions, and dangerous and hawkish leaders encouraging one another with sincerity to learn the Lord’s ways, and walk in the Lord’s paths? Can we envision the end of war and a society focused on feeding one another? Isaiah could. Jesus could.

Truth be told, there’s a miserable pessimist living rent-free in my brain and it’s crowding out my inner optimist. How can peace be possible if we can’t even accept the basic rights of others, much less talk to them without resorting to ad-hominem insults or “unfriending” them? I am guilty!

When it comes to matters of faith (after all, this is a blog about discipleship) it must be understood that the Lord’s generous and loving ways are universal, and the Lord’s path is abundant and open to all who seek to walk it. God is for everyone. No one faith tradition possesses God, and that is a fact that too many religious leaders, groups and individuals willfully distort for their own ends.

Speaking of universality and all nations, Jesus’ universal mission is hard to mistake in Matthew’s gospel for the first weekday of Advent. The Roman centurion, an outsider, recognized Jesus’ authority which led him to approach Jesus about his paralyzed and suffering servant. To reiterate, the centurion was an outsider; he was not one of Jesus’ followers, yet he saw what all the others failed to see. Jesus’ response to him reminds us of Isaiah’s vision of nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord: “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.” [MT 8:5-11]

The nations that Isaiah envisioned streaming towards the mountain included men, women and children who belonged to the differing tribes of Israel. Each person turns to the other with encouragement as they climb the great mountain to learn the Lord’s ways and walk in the Lord’s paths. Today, we think of nations, cultures, and religions as solid units; we glom everyone together under a single heading and dismiss those with whom we disagree. I don’t know about you, but I for one, do not want to be pureed into any single group. I prefer salad.

I think this glomming of people is one of the errors underlying the question of why we can’t all just get along. We see groups rather than individual human beings. Birds of a feather may very well flock together, but that doesn’t make them one giant bird.

I am reminded of the well-known lesson first introduced by Steven R. Covey in 1989 in which he demonstrated the art of prioritization by fitting what appeared to be an impossible volume of sand, stones and rocks into a single bucket. He did so by attending to the rocks first and ending with the sand. The point of Covey’s “Big Rocks of Life” lesson is, of course, that all parts fit together when they are addressed in the order of importance. In the nearly three decades since its publication, Covey’s method continues to be popular among students and professionals interested in time management, rocks, stones, pebbles, and then if there’s any room left, the sand.

The problem is that it is the exact opposite of this model that is needed if we are ever to live peacefully.  “Rocks first” affects the way we treat one another. We see groups, not individuals; we see rocks, not sand. And because the sand is the lowest priority, it is neglected. This advent, lets put the rocks aside and start with the sand.

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For ideas on how to get to know the other over a meal, I present Elizabeth Lesser’s TED talk, “Take the Other to Lunch” https://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_lesser_take_the_other_to_lunch

Also related to mealtime, see journalist David Brooks moving article entitled “The Power of a Dinner Table” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/18/opinion/the-power-of-a-dinner-table.html

If you live in Chicago, lucky you. Check out the Catholic Common Ground Initiative: http://www.ctu.lib.il.us/bernardin-center/catholic-common-ground-initiative

Maybe there is a Commonweal Local Community in your area, and if not, find out how you can start one. https://pages.commonwealmagazine.org/clc/

Readers of this blog with suggestions for how we can get to know one another better are invited to share their ideas in the comment area.

The Advent of Christ

This beautiful post from last year, written by Fr. Joel Fortier, is getting a lot of attention. Readers from all over the world have visited in the past week, most of them lingering here for a moment of contemplation. Perhaps you would also appreciate taking a moment to reflect, to enter into the quiet spaciousness that the season of Advent offers. Enjoy.

The Good Disciple

A reflection on the First week of Advent, by Fr. Joel Fortier.

waiting Mary

Hope and expectation are the notes of Advent. The advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, is a great cause for expectant faith and joyful hope! We look forward to the fullness of Christ in us. The mystery of Christ has already begun, we are in the time between the “yet” and the “not yet”. Christ has already come, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is already here, present with us, within us, and among us. And yet the fullness of the Presence is still to be revealed! 

Every moment is pregnant with grace waiting to be embraced and brought to birth in us. Every moment is an opportunity to grow in grace…in love, in Christ, to live in Christ, even as Christ lives in us…in love. The mystery of “Christ in you” is yet to be fully revealed; your true…

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Tune In

4th Sunday of Advent (C)

I have a friend who likes to say “There are no coincidences.” She believes that the events people commonly ascribe to chance are part of God’s plan. Things like randomly finding a picture of a childhood friend with whom one has lost touch and then running into her the very next day, or meeting the love of your life at a party you almost didn’t attend. I’m sure we all have similar stories.

I want to agree with her, I know many people do, but there is something fatalistic about the “no coincidences” theory that bothers me. For one, it brings into question the idea of God’s gift of free will. We are not puppets; we guide our own movement. On the other hand, the “no coincidences” theory brings forth the idea that if we are attuned to it, we can recognize and accept God’s active involvement in our lives as well as in the lives of others.

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, the gospel of Luke draws us into an intimate exchange between Elizabeth and Mary. Both women are pregnant, although it is clear neither expected to be. And it is safe to presume that even in their wildest dreams, neither woman anticipated being with child at this stage in life. But Elizabeth is a married woman; Mary is not.

What would life have been like for a young, unmarried, pregnant, Jewish peasant girl living in a patriarchal society in first century, Roman-occupied Palestine?

The correct answer is: dangerous.

Traditionally, Mary is portrayed as a demure, quiet, pious and obedient young woman, and like most women of her era, powerless and dependent on men. But don’t be misled, Mary was no shrinking violet. Her great faith, piety and self-awareness as beloved to God attuned her to God’s movement in her life.  Mary’s fiat to what she clearly knew would be difficult to explain was an expression of her profound trust that God keeps God’s promises. She said Yes to being the Christ-bearer. And, therein lies the source of Mary’s strength: as a young woman with little or no worldly rights, her Yes had the power to transform the world.

We envision young Mary, traveling in haste to Elizabeth’s house immediately after the angel left her. It is doubtful she traveled alone and without supervision. She took a great risk going public, yet the urgency of her actions express a fearlessness and confidence that her life and the life within her is now part of something much greater than any scandal surrounding her circumstances could be.

As the two women greet one another, Elizabeth, along with the infant leaping in her womb, immediately recognizes the extent of Mary’s blessedness. She applauds Mary’s acceptance of her future role for all of humankind with her words Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” [Lk 1:45] I am touched by Elizabeth’s spirit-filled and passionate response to Mary, although perhaps I shouldn’t be. Elizabeth saw clearly because, as we know, she also recognized God’s movement in her life.

Can we make ourselves to be more like Mary, whose self-awareness as beloved to God, and whose recognition of God’s movement in her life guided her decision to participate in the event that forever changed human history?

Can we, in the same way that Elizabeth did, encourage those who come to us filled with grace and enthusiasm for doing God’s will and join ourselves to the work being borne by the holy ones among us?

If we are attuned to it, we may recognize ourselves as Christ-bearers, too.

The readings for today can be found here.

Art: The Annunciation, Megan Marlatt 1987, St. Michael’s Chapel, Rutgers University

To Know Even As We Are Known

 

Wednesday of the Third Week of Advent (C)

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier.

I learned as a child, (from the Baltimore Catechism), that God created us to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy with God in the next…into eternity! It’s all about knowing and loving God; serving God, being about God’s purpose in this life and then being with God forever in the next. It’s about “knowing, even as we are known.”

To know you is to love you, we say. Well, to know God is to love God! To know a benevolent, compassionate God who

is for us, (“I am who am for you and with you”), who creates and loves us into existence; who sustains and love us by the breath of His-Her own Spirit. To be caught up in love is to know and experience Love; to know even as we are known, the total complete intimacy that only lovers can know and talk about; the breath of God! It takes our breath away and gives it back to us!

Total intimacy is about total self-revelation, complete transparency, it’s about being known. And that cannot happen without self-revelation. That is why God is continually revealing him-herself to us. It is in fact what creation is, the first revelation of God. God wants to be known even as God knows us. God created us, we are the work of God’s hands…God’s handiwork! God not only created us, God delights in us! We were created to know, love, and serve God. We are created for love! To love one another as I have loved you, Jesus says; to love others as you love yourself!

It is the mutuality of total self-disclosure, self-revelation; the total self-giving of one to another; of total complete intimacy. That is why St. Paul can say as the culmination of his great epistle on Love, that in the end, while now we see only dimly, as in a mirror, then we shall see face to face; we shall know even as we are known! It is the Beatific Vision! To see and know God even as God sees and knows us. God created us. God sees and knows us as his-her own image! A reflection, as Genesis says, “created in the image and likeness of God.” We are! That is who we are and why we were created, our purpose in life, to make God known.

It was the mission of Jesus, and is the mission Christ has given to us! To make God known…to know even as we are known!

Click here for the readings.

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Born in1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”

The single truth that can transform the world: Third Sunday of Advent

 

3rd Sunday of Advent (C)

Do you realize how precious you are?

Before the collective eye rolling begins, I want to suggest that pondering this question is far more important than fretting about the state of the world. So let me ask again: do you realize how precious you are?

I’m serious, and so are the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent. And so is Pope Francis, who inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy this past week, on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council.

So, do you realize how precious you are? Maybe? Sometimes? Not often? Me neither. But I should. I know it is true, every hair on my head [LK 12:7], yet I resist it. I resist saying it aloud. It feels awkward, and I know I’m not alone; I belong to a race of creatures who thrive on a diet of self-loathing and unworthiness.

Some might object, saying, if we were that precious why would God allow us to do harm to one another and to the earth? Really? Is the mess human beings have made of our world God’s fault? Every day, throughout the world, men and women inflict their feelings of imperfection, envy and greed onto others. Sometimes the damage is minute, a petty argument, a grudge. Other times it is harmful, violent, and as we know all too well, deadly. Would we do these things, or allow others to do them if we lived in a state of awareness of how deeply God loves us? Think about it. The condition of the world and our collective anxiety over it is a symptom of our lack of self-knowledge.

This idea of self-knowledge, and the lack thereof came to me earlier this week as I reflected on the words of the Prophet Zephaniah in the first of this weekend’s readings.

“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” [Zeph 3:14]

Meanwhile, I was berating myself for having picked up the axe of frustration from an online commentary the day before, swinging it in the direction of some point I desperately felt I needed to make. In doing so, I almost nicked the tender shoot I vowed to nurture in my heart this Advent season.

The words of the Prophet leapt off the page:

“The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” [Zeph 3:17-18]

God will sing joyfully, because of us? We’re not talking about God humming a happy tune here; the text says God is going to sing as one sings at festivals, for us. On stage, with a backup band, and a laser light show. (Okay, the text doesn’t say that.)

The word of God came to the Prophet Zephaniah as he witnessed the deplorable state of his nation; he foresaw the Day of the Lord looming and painted a bleak picture of the fate of Jerusalem’s enemies. However, the prophecy concludes with a joyful foretelling of the end of the Babylonian exile when the Judahites would return to Jerusalem; he promises renewal, forgiveness, salvation and an assurance that the Lord’s dwelling place would be amongst them. No more fear, the Lord is here!

Who is not comforted by the thought of an almighty Savior who not only rejoices in our reunion but who also dwells among us? If only we understood this is our reality.

Our creator is in love with us: powerfully, unabashedly, unconditionally, over-the-moon in love with us. All of us. Every single one of us.

How do we know this? Through grace-filled, revelatory interactions with others, through the unceasing and rejuvenating gifts of the earth, through the persistence of hope that breaks through despair and dwells in the depths of our hearts, and through our compulsion to work for a just and peaceful world.

If every human being—irrespective of belief— allowed their thoughts and actions to be guided by the knowledge of his or her belovedness, preciousness, singular, irreplaceable value, and exquisite human beauty, the resulting surge of love would extinguish all hatred from the world. It would be abundantly clear that all that matters in the world is already in our possession. Not only would each person’s self-knowledge be changed, but the entire world would be transformed with it.

With this understanding heeding the advice of John the Baptist in today’s gospel [LK 3:10-14] becomes as natural as breathing. We act from a place of self-knowledge when we recognize our abundance, share what we have with others, practice mercy, and turn away from deadly lies and destructive acts

In an interview with Italian Jubilee Publication ‘Credere’ published December 3, 2015, Pope Francis said, “The revolution of tenderness is what we have to cultivate today as the fruit of this Year of Mercy: God’s tenderness towards each one of us. Each one of us must say: “I am an unfortunate man, but God loves me thus, so I must also love others in the same way.”” Our attention to the needs of the world begins when we open our hearts to the reality that God loves us so.

In those fleeting moments of grace when we can grasp the depth of God’s love, God rejoices with us. Have you felt it? I am reminded of the chest-crushing gratitude I experienced as a young mother for the privilege of raising my daughters. Perhaps you have caught glimpses of it in your day-to-day activities: you witness an unexpected act of great generosity on your way to work; or, you perceive another person’s sorrow and silently lift a portion of it onto yourself; or,  in your classroom you observe a friendship forming between one lonely student and another; or, you witness a crime, injustice or searing poverty and know you are called to do something about it. You suddenly see that people are good, singularly unique, interconnected, and precious.

In as many ways as there are stars in the universe, these and other instances of profound human love, of selfless giving, of giving oneself over to a stranger without thought, of gracious receiving, or in offering mercy over judgement, our value as God’s precious and beloved ones is revealed to us. We are treasured more than the greatest pearl, than all the riches of the world. In those seconds of clarity, it feels as if the divine spark hidden in our depths is charged by the flame of the Holy One who burns for us always. It is the Oh Wow of divine sight.

St. Paul wrote to the Philippians “The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil 4:5c-7]

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding compels us to acts of mercy. God’s precious creation should not live in fear, amidst violence and pollution. God’s precious creation should not inflict pain or seek to destroy others. A lack of love—an inability to love—signals a lack of self-knowledge. Knowledge of one’s belovedness is the condition for love.

God sings, “Do you realize how precious you are to me?”

Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son Zechariah in the desert.”[Lk 3:1-3]

The gospel of Luke provides an historical context for the start of John the Baptist’s ministry. We are presented with seven names and five regions; some sound familiar, others not so much. But who cares? Why didn’t the writer save us the history lesson and just say “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”?

Luke was a brilliant writer who wanted his readers to grasp the theological significance of the Word of God coming not to the powerhouse of governors in Roman occupied Palestine or the appointed tetrarchs and high priests in their temples, but to a poor and humble man, a seeker of truth who lived in the desert and survived on locusts and honey [MT 3:4]

What else has Luke told us about John the Baptist up to this place in the gospel? We know he was the only child of a priest named Zechariah and a woman named Elizabeth who was thought to be barren. We know that his conception was announced by an angel named Gabriel to his incredulous father as he offered incense in the sanctuary of the Lord. Luke also tells us that Gabriel informed Zechariah that his son (who Gabriel said would be named John) would be great, and among other things, “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” [Lk 1:16-17]. We know that Elizabeth felt the unborn infant, John, leap in her womb when Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, greeted her. And we know, as today’s reading tells us, that the word of God came to John in the desert, after which his mission to fulfill the heraldic prophecy of Isaiah began.

A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” [Lk 3:4-6; Is 40:3–4]

In the first reading for the second Sunday of Advent, the Prophet Baruch envisions the long-suffering, exiled Israelites returning in glory from the East and the West to a restored and splendorous Jerusalem, rejoicing because “they are remembered by God” [Bar 5:1-9]. In the verse which inspired John the Baptist’s mission the Prophet Isaiah prophesied that the way to God would be made smooth and straight, free of obstacles and barriers. John understood his mission clearly: he was to prepare the way of the Lord so that all people could follow in the light of God’s glory. For him, the first requirement was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” [Lk 3:3]

Repentance. Who likes this word? Nobody, that’s who. But it is true that many of the rough and winding roads we traverse are of our own making, and it is true that we hurt others along the way. We do damage that separates us from God. Like John the Baptist, the task of every disciple is to prepare smooth and straight highways not just for one’s own spiritual journey, but for all people so it is accessible to anyone who wishes to come along.

We’re talking about forgiveness and reconciliation here.

The desert is a place of diminished distraction. It is a place we go to get away and clear our heads. In the desert our senses are enhanced; we are acutely aware of the vastness of space and our solitude. But for the hint of critters scuttling through the sand, the desert is silent. It can also be dangerous. A desert experience, whether it is literal or figurative, is similar to a spiritual retreat. Away from the metropolis, away from the hubbub we go inward to examine, renew and rebalance ourselves. Vulnerability is central to both desert experiences and retreats and this makes both risky; without distraction we come face to face with our hopes and fears, our dreams, our failures and our losses; and the clamor of our thoughts force us to acknowledge those things we need to repent.

Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.[Psalm 126:6]

Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways, permit yourself the freedom to change directions, to repent and forgive, and leave open a space into which the Word of God can enter. Advent offers us such an experience. Let’s take advantage of it.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

The Advent of Christ

A reflection on the First week of Advent, by Fr. Joel Fortier.

Hope and expectation are the notes of Advent. The advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, is a great cause for expectant faith and joyful hope! We look forward to the fullness of Christ in us. The mystery of Christ has already begun, we are in the time between the “yet” and the “not yet”. Christ has already come, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is already here, present with us, within us, and among us. And yet the fullness of the Presence is still to be revealed! 

Every moment is pregnant with grace waiting to be embraced and brought to birth in us. Every moment is an opportunity to grow in grace…in love, in Christ, to live in Christ, even as Christ lives in us…in love. The mystery of “Christ in you” is yet to be fully revealed; your true self, hidden with Christ in God is coming, we wait patiently for it to be revealed. The vision presses on, has its own time, it will not delay, it will surely come. Come Lord Jesus, come! No longer I but Christ living in me! Reveal yourself to me, my true self, hidden with you in God. Let it be revealed! 

Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel! 

Christ is coming, is already with us, Emmanuel, God-with-us, the God who was, who is, and who is to come! Christ comes into our lives in the form of people who evoke love in us; who cause us to love. Christ is the invitation to love. 

Advent is pregnant with hope and longing for the promise of Christmas, the Incarnation of love in us. We cover up that hope and longing with all the intensity of Christmas planning, shopping, gifts, decorations, parties, etc. but what is driving us underneath all that is the hope of what Christmas promises. We do want and long for that, the realization of love in our lives, and so we go about all the frenetic energy of pre-Christmas, looking for love in all the wrong places, but still…searching for love. And that is a good thing! We just need to understand what we are really searching for. 

We need to go underneath all our activity, to that place of deep longing in our hearts, to our desire for love, our hope; to wait on the Word of promise planted in our hearts,  and listen to it, to that deep longing. It is the true spirit of Christmas coming. We need to wait patiently, actively listening to the Love Word of God as Mary did; pondering these things of the heart. Then it will come to birth. Advent is a time of gestation. 

It is good to learn the discipline of waiting, of active listening. It is an old saying that “patience is the mother of all virtue.” It is good to be open to the possibilities of love, in an otherwise jaded, pessimistic, and impatient world. Love keeps hope alive. Allow love to live in your heart today. Wait, watch, look, listen, open your heart and mind to love. Love is coming! Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming, oh yes I know!! 

Freedom is Coming, by Gospelchor Wildschonau, from the Album “Theres a Meeting Here Tonight” on Spotify.com

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Born in1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL,the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, anywhere and any way possible.”