A Norbertine Priest in Afghanistan and Kosovo

2b-kosovo-eye-diseaseFrom 2003 till 2011 I was a military chaplain. The Chief Chaplain of the Czech Military Chaplaincy told me, in the beginning of my service, that there is an important skill which military chaplain must have: the strength to bear loneliness. During my service there were many wonderful moments, but some were very hard. I had to go through long and intensive training, and often lived a long time out of my community. Deployments abroad meant living a couple months without my community and often without any other priest. I lost several friends and had to announce their death to their families – parents, wives, siblings. There were moments when my community, my family, my friends or parishioners from the past, couldn´t understand.

On the other hand, I experienced that God was near by many new blessings: the community of military chaplains, the friendships of soldiers, wonders around me (such as the Afghanistan’s amazing natural landscape or Kosovo’s religious monuments). I met people who were very poor, sick, suffering, who lost a lot of family members in war, but who were full of hope and strong in the Lord. Their witness encouraged me. I often felt not strong enough, not good enough, not skilled enough; but God let me experience that he can use me as his instrument even with my weakness and imperfection. I experienced a conversion of soldiers who were touched by God´s grace and found Jesus. I could help them to prepare for baptism and they became our brothers in Christ. There was a lot of blessing around me.

Maybe the words of Psalm 94:18-19 could help me to express what I want to describe:

When I said, “My foot is slipping,”
your unfailing love, Lord, supported me.
When anxiety was great within me,
your consolation brought me joy.

And my Norbertine family surprised me as well.

In Kosovo and Afghanistan, we met people who suffered horribly. There was a poor family in Kosovo where three children had a serious eye disease and had lost their eyesight. There was a painful pressure in their eyes, but any medication was too expensive and unavailable in their area. The kids got some eye drops bringing relief only on Christmas. There were villages destroyed by mudslides in Afghanistan. Many people lost their homes, their lives, or were injured. I was a chaplain of a Provincial Reconstruction Team and our goal was to support people in need. But this was too much and we needed more support of our Government and other organizations. And one day, there appeared a 4 year old boy, Hammidulla, in our camp. His uncle brought him in his arms. He fell into a fire and was burnt on his tummy, groin, and thighs. No hospital in Afghanistan was able to help him and military doctors suggested moving him to the Czech Republic for a complicated surgery. And there were many other cases, many other people in need.

We wrote letters to the Czech Republic and asked some organizations for support. I sent the letter to my community and priests of our Abbey. We found organizations and people who supported us. But guess who was the most generous? Norbertine parishes. They did collections on Sunday Masses and sent us more money than we expected. We could help Hammidulla to stay 5 months in the Czech Republic and paid part of his rehabilitation and special treatment. We could buy expensive medication for the needy people of Kosovo. We bought a lot of blankets, pharmaceuticals, school equipment, and built a new kitchen and dining room for kids in an orphanage in Afghanistan. I could continue with more stories.

Many of these generous parishes were in need as well. They needed money for restoring their churches, old organ, parish houses, and pastoral projects and so on. But there was still enough to share with others.

I was proud of my Norbertine family.

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One heart and mind on their way to God

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I would like to share with you the gratitude and joy that my vocation as a Norbertine priest gave me two weekends past.  I was privileged to baptize one of my former student’s children. It was his and his wife’s third child and I was asked to preside at the Rite of Baptism for all three.  It gave me great joy to remember and celebrate with my former student and his family, sharing memories of his and his brothers’ high school days and then having the joy of welcoming his son into communion with the Body of Christ.

The experience filled me with gratitude for my vocation that affords me a participation in the sacramental ministry of the Church, and in true Norbertine tradition, uses the grace of the occasion to share the Norbertine communio with others: combining the community life of a Norbertine Abbey with the service, in this instance, in a sacramental way, of incorporating a new member into the Christian community. 

I was overwhelmed that it has been seventeen years since I taught this student and yet he still wanted me to part of his family’s journey of being of “one heart and mind on their way to God”.

I was and am very grateful that I had this opportunity to exercise my sacramental ministry in service to a former student and his family and makes me thankful for the gift of vocation that the Lord has given me. Perhaps you have the same realizations of God’s giftedness in your own lives and can understand the feelings of joy and humility that this giftedness brings.  Reflect on and respond to the gift ….. it’s part of the hundredfold that the Lord speaks about.

St. Francis of Assisi

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Yes, October 4th, the memorial of St. Francis of Assisi.  It is a very important day for me since I bear the name Francis and was named in memory of the saint from Assisi. We blessed the animals here at the Abbey last Saturday, but it was celebrating Mass today and reciting the Office of Readings for the memorial feast that real brought home to me the significance of Francis of Assisi for all consecrated Religious and all peoples.

As a young man, it is known that he led a rather irresolute life; but after a conversion experience, he became such a close follower of Jesus that he was given the gift of the Stigmata: bearing in his body the wounds of Christ.  This conversion experience is so similar to Paul’s story in the first reading from today’s liturgy: how he gave up his former ways to become the herald of the good news, much like Mary in today’s Gospel, who sat at Jesus’ feet and just listened to His words of life. Francis himself listened to the words of Jesus and found life living the poverty and humility of a God who emptied himself of His Godhead and took on the form of his own creation, living in poverty and humility, using this poverty and humility to change the world.

Pope Francis, who took his name after today’s saint, also calls on us as religious to “wake up the world”, living simply and humbly in respect for and in cooperation with each other and with all of God’s Creation. To be poor and humble affords us all to see beyond the “bling” of this world in order to live the happiness of being redeemed and justified by Christ.  I am drawn to Francis’ words of exhortation, calling us to live humbly and in example of the poor man from Nazareth who changed the world by waking it to the love and compassion of a merciful God. 

I thank God for my vocation and the opportunities it gives me to spread the Good News of Jesus, ever mindful that Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of God is theirs. May we all realize that this is the vocation of all of us who commit ourselves to following the Way of the Lord: in humility, in poverty of spirit, and in imitation of Francis who in giving all to the Lord, attained in his words TRUE happiness and love.