The past six months have brought many new steps in the journey of my life, including a new job, a new city, and a pilgrimage to Israel. The past two years I have been very blessed to serve in campus ministry at the Newman Center at the University of Arizona (go Wildcats!). I believe that campus ministry is one of the most critical mission fields, since it seeks to reach out to students and help them grow deeper in their faith during a time that they are bombarded by many voices trying to pull them astray, so I'll always have a passion for campus ministry, and I ask for you to keep all campus ministries in your prayers. I grew tremendously during this time, so my thanks goes out to the Dominican community and the students, in allowing God's love to pour through their love. I have since accepted a position as the Music Coordinator at St. Timothy Catholic Church in Mesa, AZ. Music ministry has always been my primary passion, so I am very excited to be able to focus on serving the Church through music, I hope that God will use my service in this role to lead others closer to Him.
In May, I was blessed with the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with my girlfriend, Paige Dowler, and her family. We went with a pilgrimage group that was led by one of the Franciscans in Israel. I want to preface everything I say about the pilgrimage by saying that simply visiting the Holy Land doesn't make you any more holy, and never visiting the Holy Land doesn't prevent you from a special holiness. There are have been many Saints who never had the opportunity for a Holy Land pilgrimage. What a Holy Land pilgrimage allows though, is the opportunity to bring the Word of God more alive in our hearts in being able to visit the places that the events in scripture took place. This opens up a specific and vivid way that God can speak to us and draw us closer to Him.
One of the most powerful places for me was the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It was moving to visit the location where the angel Gabriel visited Mary to bring her the news of God's plan for salvation, and where Mary's "yes" allowed God to become man to save all of humankind. Where Mary, the New Eve, out of her own free will, surrendered her own will in uniting it to God's plan to bring the Word of God to become flesh. During my time of prayer in this Basilica, I felt Jesus move in my heart a sense of joy in welcoming me to the actual place he grew up. There's a certain depth to a friendship when you welcome a friend into the house you grew up in, not that it's necessary for a friendship, but it becomes much easier to reach that depth. This is what I experienced, moving me to then reflect on the areas of my life that I've surrendered to my relationship with Jesus and what areas I can still unite to God's will. More than anything though, that joy and excitement from God in my heart stuck with me.
Towards the end of the pilgrimage, we had the opportunity to have Mass in the Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Once again, God spoke in a unique way, in particular during communion. During most of the Mass, since the altar is within the inmost part of the tomb, we could not see the presider. To distribute communion, he had to come out of the inner tomb to the area we were standing, and in that moment, I was struck with the mystery of the Eucharist. Even though Jesus told his disciples that he was going to die, His disciples never completely understood why until after the resurrection. It was through the lens of the resurrection that they finally understood the cross. Through the lens of the cross and resurrection, they finally understood the Last Supper, what he meant by "This is my body...do this in memory of me." (Lk 22:19). The disciples then went forward in faith and spread the love of God and the message of the Gospel with the Eucharist as their source. In this moment, of seeing the Eucharist, our Lord Jesus himself, really, truly, and fully present as much as he was the day he walked out of that tomb 2000 years ago, struck my heart profoundly. Even more powerful, is the realization that during every Mass, that moment of Jesus's death and resurrection 2000 years ago enters back into time, and we witness that very moment. This Mass was an encounter with the place and time of our redemption. The glory of God left me in awe of the profound truth of our Catholic faith and opened my heart to the realization that he desires for us to passionately share the incredible gift of the Eucharist, the love of God that pours from the death and resurrection of our Lord present in the Mass.
This time of pilgrimage and change has guided me to reflect on my entire life, in particular an experience that radically changed my life exactly 20 years ago. My dad became sick with an unusual environmental sickness, and the rest of my family and I also contracted new symptoms like allergies and asthma. We realized that this was most likely due to carbon monoxide poisoning, and the only solution for us was to move from our comfortable Denver suburban home away from everything and into the mountains. This confusion at the time drew my entire family closer to God, turning our lukewarm faith into complete reliance on God. The interesting part is that this all happened during World Youth Day '93, when Pope John Paul II (soon to be canonized), along with half-a-million pilgrims from all over the world visited Denver. Since then, numerous ministries and movements of the Church have grown out of Denver, representing fruits of the Holy Spirit during this time. I remember being frustrated that I couldn't go to World Youth Day to see the Pope, and instead had to pack my belongings into boxes. What I realize now is that God was moving us, not only physically but within our hearts, to prepare my family to follow Him. (Check the ministries my sister and brother-in-law, Cristina and Cristóbal Almanza, serve in: Heroic Media and Austin Catholic New Media)
Twenty years later, I realize that life itself is a pilgrimage. We are, after all, called the "pilgrim Church" during our life here on Earth. Sometimes it takes us 20 years and a trip overseas to understand an illness. But sometimes, it only takes an open heart to the voice of God, to trust that we are following Him with our whole heart and that He's guiding us in this journey of life.
The Church, to which we are all called in Christ Jesus, and in which by the grace of God we acquire holiness, will receive its perfection only in the glory of heaven, when will come the time of the renewal of all things (Acts 3:21). At that time, together with the human race, the universe itself, which is so closely related to man and which attains its destiny through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:10; Col. 1:20; 2 Pet. 3:10-13).
Christ lifted up from the earth, has drawn all men to himself (cf. Jn. 12:32). Rising from the dead (cf. Rom. 6:9) he sent his life-giving Spirit upon his disciples and through him set up his Body which is the Church as the universal sacrament of salvation. Sitting at the right hand of the Father he is continually active in the world in order to lead men to the Church and, through it, join them more closely to himself; and, by nourishing them with his own Body and Blood, make them partakers of his glorious life. The promised and hoped for restoration, therefore, has already begun in Christ. It is carried forward in the sending of the Holy Spirit and through him continues in the Church in which, through our faith, we learn the meaning of our earthly life, while we bring to term, with hope of future good, the task allotted to us in the world by the Father, and so work out our salvation (cf. Phil. 2:12).
Already the final age of the world is with us (cf. 1 Cor. 10:11) and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way- it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real though imperfect. However, until there be realized new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells (cf. 2 Pet. 3:13) the pilgrim Church, in its sacraments and institutions, which belong to this present age, carries the mark of this world which will pass, and she herself takes her place among the creatures which groan and travail yet and await the revelation of the sons of God (cf. Rom. 8: 19-22)....
For if we continue to love one another and to join in praising the Most Holy Trinity--all of us who are sons of God and form one family in Christ (cf. Heb. 3:6)--we will be faithful to the deepest vocation of the Church and will share in a foretaste of the liturgy of perfect glory. At the hour when Christ will appear, when the glorious resurrection of the dead will occur, the glory of God will light up the heavenly city, and the Lamb will be its lamp (cf. Rev 21:24). Then the whole Church of the saints in the supreme happiness of charity will adore God and "the Lamb who was slain" (Rev 5:12), proclaiming with one voice: "To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever' (Rev 5:13-14).
- Lumen Gentium, "The Pilgrim Church"
Ultimately then, what is the meaning of life? To love and grow closer to Love Himself. Let us continue on this pilgrimage of life and seek to love God and one another, longing for the day we are fully united with Him in Heaven.