To give you a little context...and understand why I really needed that retreat last week...
Bishop LaValley has granted our parochial vicar--at his own request, and for personal reasons--a leave of absence from priestly ministry, effective immediately. Certainly the prayers and loving support of our parishes go with him.
Aware of the needs of our parishes, Bishop LaValley has now assigned Fr. Bryan Stitt as parochial vicar here in the Malone Catholic Parishes. Fr. Stitt has been serving fulltime as Diocesan Vocation Director since June of last year. He will continue to work as Vocation Director, splitting his time and energy 50/50 between that assignment and our parishes. This may require a few sacrifices from us along the way, but the circumstances which bring him here point to the truly critical nature of his vocations work. As we’ve learned all-too-well during the past year, things can and do change, but the current plan is that Fr. Stitt will be with us until next May or June.
Since 2003, Catholics in the U.S. have been observing the last Sunday in October as “Priesthood Sunday.” May I be so bold as to ask you to please set some time aside this Sunday to pray for your priests—past, present, and even future ones?
May the Lord give the Church the shepherds she needs: give us shepherds after his own heart.
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
With Thanksgiving approaching,
a family had received a lovely card for the holiday
depicting a Pilgrim family on its way to church.
Seizing the opportunity,
Grandma showed the picture to the kids and said,
“Look here! The Pilgrim children liked to go to church
with their mothers and fathers.”
“Oh yeah?” one of the boys replied.
“Then why is their dad carrying that rifle?”
Call no one on earth your father.
Many would, no doubt, assume
that that’s the hardest line for a priest to preach upon this Sunday.
But we mustn’t forget these words were spoken
by the very same lips which also said,
If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out;
if your hand, cut it off. (Matt 18:9-10)
Like many a preacher,
Jesus was known to use a little exaggeration for effect.
Since the New Testament shows
that the title, “father,” continued to be used—
in both family and religious settings—
by Christians during the days of the apostles,
the title itself doesn’t trouble me. (e.g. Acts 7:2; Eph 6:4)
The real trouble is in living up to that title.
And that would seem to be the preoccupation
of the Scripture readings we’ve just heard.
Jesus’ challenge to the scribes and Pharisees
is that they’re more concerned with looking pious
than actually being holy.
What’s seen on the outside doesn’t match what’s going on within.
His comments on their wide phylacteries and long tassels
can find a modern day equivalent
in the Roman collar which I so often wear.
It’s an indispensable tool when I’m in the confessional,
at the hospital, or visiting the school:
those who need a priest
instantly know where to find one.
But a few years back my baby sister dubbed the collar, “the easy pass.”
“If I had one of those things,” she said, “I’d wear it all the time!
People push you to the front of the line; they give you discounts.
It must work wonders if you get stopped for speeding!” (It does.)
How easily even a sacred sign can be abused.
The problem isn’t the symbol;
it’s when the one behind the symbol isn’t sincere--
when the example falls short of the teaching;
when the practice doesn’t match the preaching.
Such hypocrisy will--eventually--always come to the surface.
If that’s the diagnosis--
if that’s where religious leadership is so likely to run amuck--
then what’s the cure?
I heard a pretty good answer to that
in the homily given early on Friday morning
by Fr. Stephen, one of the monks at the abbey
where I made my retreat this past week.
His prescription? Humility and confidence.
St. Paul was so grateful that the Thessalonians,
on hearing his preaching,
realized that they were receiving not a merely human word,
but the very word of God.
That could only be clear to his hearers if Paul the man
managed to stay out of the way of the Gospel of God.
Paul knew who he was…and Paul knew who he wasn’t…
…and he did not fear either one.
He understood that it is God and God alone
who heals hearts and changes lives…
…not apostles, not prophets, not priests.
Humility allows the Lord’s ministers to say,
“Don’t believe in me!”
At best, I’m a sideshow…not the main attraction.
In fact, if I’m drawing too much attention to myself,
then I’m failing you and failing God.
One of the most heartbreaking moments of my priesthood
was when I left my last assignment and heard people say,
“If you leave, Father, then I’ll stop going to Mass.”
The only thing worse was when some actually did.
Humility makes it plain who must really be at the center of our faith.
Humility and confidence.
The Catholic priesthood has gotten quite a black eye
from the scandals of recent years.
Not at all to minimize its horrors,
but we need to realize that sexual abuse
is a crime committed by relatively few priests.
We hear the prophet Malachi confronting a far more widespread failing:
that of messengers who neglect the message.
This is not to say that priests--
in the Temple of old or in parishes today--
aren’t very bright or are poorly informed.
One way we can be tempted to neglect the message
is to show partiality--to play favorites.
People of influence, people we like, people we need,
may be allowed to bend or break the rules
rather than confront them with a difficult truth.
Nowadays, it would seem, we priests are more likely to be afraid
not of losing people with money or power…
…but of just plain losing people.
We might “adjust” our presentation of the Church’s position,
or avoid some sticky topics altogether,
because we don’t want to make anybody uncomfortable--
because we can’t afford to scare anybody off.
The temptation is to tell people what they want to hear,
rather than what they really need to hear.
Devoted parents, however, do not neglect the needs of their children,
even when what they need most is some tough love.
Given its divine source, we cannot dilute or compromise the message.
And this calls for confidence.
Now, in speaking of confidence,
I in no ways mean to imply
that God authorizes his representatives
to take a heavy-handed approach--
like a Pilgrim dad carrying a riffle to keep the kids in line.
St. Paul’s success in Thessalonica, we see,
is in large part due to his gentleness
and his sincere affection for those in his care.
As the wise pastor, St. Francis de Sales, liked to say,
“You can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey
than a barrel of vinegar.”
Of course…then you’ve still got to deal with those flies!
Can I ask you all a favor?
When it comes time to arrange the next baptism,
wedding, funeral, or such in your family,
would you mind not asking your priests to make some exception
to this rule or that--“just this once, Father”?
It’s only fair to your fellow Catholics,
and being caught there in there middle
is no place I really like to be.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ day
were well known, quite powerful, and much respected.
It was once that way in our society, as well,
though not so much any more.
Jesus’ rebuke--then and now--
was not against religious leadership, per se.
If he were so egalitarian,
Jesus would have never distinguished twelve apostles
from the rest of his disciples.
Instead, Jesus took issue with religious leadership
that seeks to serve itself, rather than others--
which tends to its own purposes, rather than to God’s.
Among those who follow Christ,
true greatness is found not in rank, but in service--
humble service, confident service.
For all those times when I’ve failed
to live up to that high title of, “Father,”
when I’ve not been as humble as I ought to be,
when I’ve not been as confident as you needed me to be,
when I’ve not practiced what I’ve preached,
I’m truly sorry.
But while I’m sorry about my failings,
I’m not at all sorry about my priesthood.
I love being a priest!
I love being your priest!
St. Paul asked the Thessalonians
to recall his toil and drudgery, that he was working night and day--
not to complain, mind you,
but as a living reminder that what he wished to share with them
was not only the gospel message, but his very self as well.
I’m striving to do the same.
I think the Peace Corps had it all wrong;
in my experience, anyway,
it’s the Catholic priesthood that’s “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
Pray for priests.
Pray for more priests.
Pray that we’ll be the fathers we ought.
Pray that we’ll be the fathers you need.