Making sense of senselessness

Last Friday, our country was once again overwhelmed with sadness and horror as we watched another school shooting; this time, the killer murdered 20 innocent children and six adults, as well as his own mother and himself. This act of violence, this act of evil, was especially heinous considering the timing of the attack, just before Christmas, and the very young ages of the children. My heart ached for the families. I lifted up my Mass for all of them early Saturday morning to the innocent Jesus who was crucified and to his mother Mary, who herself witnessed theviolent death of her own son.

During Mass I recalled the violence of the Holy Innocents whose feast day we celebrate three days after Christmas. The hearts of those mothers and fathers also ached and they also wept for their children, who were slaughtered by an evil king.  My own heart recalled Columbine and the Aurora theatre shooting and the families I ministered to. I prayed intensely for the parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters, and all those impacted.

I found myself asking, “When will we wake up as a nation to the violence that surrounds us?” To violence that we permit in the name of freedom. We see violence glorified in movies, in video games, in the senseless murders that take place each day. And then there is the quiet complacent violence of abortion that snuffs out the lives of more than 3,000 innocents a day.

As I flew home from meetings in Rome on Saturday, I watched innocent children playing with one another in the line to board the plane—brothers and sisters filled with joy in their travel to the States for Christmas. My heart ached for the families in Newtown, who won’t be celebrating Christmas with their children this year.

I watched a movie on the flight. A character in the film spoke of the injustice of violence against the innocent during wartime, describing it as ““lies that mask evil with glorious rhetoric.” The sentence struck me. Masking evil with glorious rhetoric is what our country does with its films, its video games and yes, most sadly with abortion. We hide an evil behind the dishonest rhetoric of “freedom to choose,” and we refuse to see how violence impacts and influences the culture in which we live. These acts of violence communicate to us that life is expendable.

The Father weeps with us, Jesus weeps with us, and Mary weeps with us especially in this Advent season as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. A season of hope, a season of joy marred by the evil and darkness of so violent an act. Yet it is the light of Christ and the love of God that sustains us in such times.

“In the beginning,” John’s Gospel tells us, “was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … And the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth.”

Christmas is the celebration of the Word of God becoming flesh—becoming incarnate among us, and revealing the glory of God the Father. Christmas is the recognition that the God of eternity entered time to reveal to us God’s love. Christmas is the great mystery by which God became man—and by which man is given the chance to become like God.

Christmas changes everything. History is forever changed. Life is given meaning. The claim that God becomes man—and not only man, but that God becomes a newborn child, born in the lowliest of places—is a radical claim. To believe it requires a radical response. It requires a transformation of our lives. It requires us to put our faith in the God who is love.

In Luke’s Gospel, Christmas is first proclaimed to the shepherds outside Bethlehem, who receive from angels the news that “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”  When the shepherds receive this news, they search for Jesus with “great haste.” They run to Bethlehem, with joyful and hasty abandon, to find the Savior of the world. Outside of Joseph and Mary, the shepherds are the very first Christian disciples.

Because they made haste, the shepherds were among the first to find Jesus Christ, lying, as the angels told them, in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, with his parents in adoration of God’s abundant goodness.

We too should make haste to find the Lord. In his book, “Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives,” Pope Benedict XVI asks “How many Christians make haste today, where the things of God are concerned? Surely, if anything merits haste … it is the things of God.”

We should make haste to find the Lord. To find the light that leads to grace and truth, which no darkness can overcome. At the claim that God has become man, we should drop everything to pursue him—to find Christ, and, like the shepherds, to worship him. We should proclaim him Lord, and like the shepherds we should glorify and praise God for the wonder of his incarnation.

In some ways, we seem to have let Christmas lose its radical meaning in recent years.   Christmas, we’re often told, even by well-meaning people, is about family, togetherness and peace. This is true. Yet, Christmas is about the peace that surpasses understanding. It is about the peace of Jesus Christ, which nothing in the world can give.

This peace comes through Jesus Christ’s redemption of the world and is a peace that no darkness can take away, no evil snuff can out. If we do not present ourselves to Christ, as the shepherds did—if we do not seek him out, and adore him, and glorify him, we will not know the peace of Christ.  Nothing short of holiness can bring us the peace that Christ gives—and nothing short of “haste” will help us to become holy.

The Incarnation is a pivotal moment in the drama of the world’s history. And this Christmas, as we confront the evil experienced in Newtown, Conn., I pray that the Incarnation will be a pivotal moment in the drama of each of your lives, as well.

I pray that you and your families will pursue the Lord and come to the light and peace, the grace and the glory that he alone can bestow. I pray that you will glorify him in your lives, and that your lives will be filled with praise. I pray that when the Lord comes into the world—in the Eucharist, in the Scripture, and in your families—you will always make haste to find him.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”