One of the guiding principles of my priesthood has always been: “If I have to choose between right thought/ dogma and right relationships, then I’ll choose right relationships every time.” Time and time again over the history of the church, official church dogma has failed us. It has always been the relationships that have endured. I’m pretty sure this is why Jesus put so much emphasis on us living into the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s always been about relationships. 

At the ripe old age of 64, I’m beginning to see a deeper understanding of living into the Great Commandment. Less stuff and more memories. I’ve always believed once you have food, clothing, shelter and transportation covered, then anything else is extra. 

My wife and I have told our adult children we no longer want or need anymore stuff. Instead of sending us a gift, call us or send a card with a handwritten note for birthdays, mother’s day or father’s day. We cherish memories of those we love much more than we care for our material possessions. 

It’s actually rather freeing to walk away from the stuff. If I give away the stuff, I no longer have to worry about taking care of it. If I decline the additions of more possessions in my life, then I’m free to go where I want, when I want, with whom I want. 

This June 18th, I will mark my 28th anniversary in Holy Orders. By my counting, I’ve baptized more than 650 people (mostly babies), officiated at the weddings of more than 480 couples, and presided over the funerals for more than 500 souls. Each one of those is a memory that I care deeply about. 

In my desk at the office, all four filing drawers are filled to the top with letters and notes that I’ve kept over the years. Most of them are personal thank you notes for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. I’m blessed to have a vocation where I am allowed to be present at the holiest times in peoples’ lives. As such, I’ve kept each of those notes, letters, and cards as a reminder of why I was set apart with my ordination. 

There are those days when my heart is heavy. There are days when I wonder if the church and my priesthood can really make a difference for a world that is so divided and so broken. When that happens, I open up one of the four filing drawers in my desk. I randomly pull out a handful of cards and letters. Usually that is about a half a dozen of them. Then I open them up and begin to reread them. 

Instantly, I’m transported back in time. I connect the name to the face; the face to the place and circumstances; the place and circumstances to the story of how we originally met. Whatever doubts I might have had about my priesthood, they fade quickly away. Those memories of people in my life bring me comfort and help me to focus and move forward once again. So now I can easily leave behind all the stuff. On the other hand, the many memories of a shared humanity where paths in life have crossed and touched our souls, those will stay with me forever. It has taken me a lifetime to get here, but you can keep all the stuff. I’m more than content to remain connected to people and my memories. 

Fr. Mark 

There have been numerous times in my life when even after giving my very best effort I came up short. I didn’t come in first place. I didn’t win the blue ribbon or hoist above my head the coveted golden trophy. I used all the resources at my disposal along with my outside of the box imagination and still I missed the mark.

Yet, as long as I really knew that I had given my best effort I was content. As long as I knew in my heart if I were to replay the situation before me over and over again, the outcome would remain the same, I could live with that. You see, there is no shame in giving all that you have for something you dearly believe in. There is no shame in trying your absolute hardest and still falling short of accomplishing your original goal.

Which is why with recent events in the news, I’m left struggling. Is this really our best? We just crossed the million-person mark for lives lost to COVID-19. A million is a lot of anything. We fought over vaccines, the wearing of masks, and social distancing. Some said it was all a hoax and the body tally kept increasing. Others said it will go away when the weather warms up. Now we wonder how did we allow ourselves to get to this point? Why did we let our pride, our fears, and complete ignorance, inflict such damaging losses on this, the most powerful nation the world has ever known?

Then over the last two weeks we’ve all watched in horror as two mass shootings have once again wreaked carnage in a grocery store and an elementary school. The media covers the aftermath like a blanket. Our elected officials send up the usual thoughts and prayers. Many of us are outraged to live in a country where there are more mass shootings that days in the year. As for me, I have to ask, “Is this really our best?”

I understand the deeply polarized world in which we are living. I know how tribal we have become. Our leaders have become experts at exploiting our fears and hurts to raise billions of dollars for the next election cycle, though in terms of any real action nothing ever changes. The list just gets longer: Columbine, Red Lake, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois, Sandy Hook Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Santa Fe, Oxford, and now Robb Elementary joins the ever growing list of mass shootings.

Is just maintaining the status quo really our very best effort? Is doing nothing the preferred choice instead of engaging the difficult work of finding compromises? Has it now become acceptable for us just to send our children off to school and let them take their chances in life’s lottery that they might be the next shooting victims?

I believe that to date, we have not yet given these issues our very best effort in finding new and better solutions. I know that we can do better. There is certain to be another future wave of COVID that will take even more lives. Without any meaningful changes in how we handle firearms in this country we are certain to have more and deadlier mass shootings inside of our schools.

We need more of us who are willing to offer our very best to find new answers for entrenched problems plaguing our nation. What we have given so far, simply isn’t enough. To break the vicious cycle in which we find ourselves stuck, it will take all of our best.

Father Mark +