Sunday, April 26, 2015

Not For Hire

   Fourth Sunday of Easter   B 

What do you get if you cross
an angry sheep with a grumpy cow?
An animal that’s in a b-a-a-a-d mooood.


Of course,
I wish the only things for which I had to apologize
were my lousy jokes.

Last Sunday, I was stopped by a gentleman after Mass.
He’s not Catholic, but his wife and kids are,
and for years now he’s regularly come to church with them.
He said, “You know, Father, some Sundays,
as we’re driving home and I’m thinking about your message,
I get awfully frustrated.”
I swallowed hard.  What had I done now?
He went on to say that there are times when I’m preaching
when he senses that I’m working up to a point—
about to say something strong and challenging,
to call people to task,
to speak words that will provoke
because they’re not “politically correct,”
words people don’t really want to hear but need to hear—
and then they don’t come.
“I get frustrated,” he said,
“because you didn’t take your message far enough,
because it feels like you backed down.”
In the past few months,
a friend who reads my homilies online
has made much the same point.

Guilty as charged.

In this Sunday’s gospel,
Jesus contrasts a good shepherd 
with a hireling:
one risks everything—even life and limb—
for his sheep;
the other turns tail and runs.

I’m afraid that there are times 
when this shepherd
acts more like a hired man—
when I should be saving you from wolves,
but I instead find myself scared of my sheep.

Pardon me for being a bit timid sometimes,
but I receive phone calls and mail aplenty
from parishioners intent on reminding me
of all the ways I’ve screwed up.
There’ve been times when there’s been a misunderstanding—
when I overreacted,
when you felt brushed off,
when I didn’t follow through.
There’ve been times when I taught something unpopular,
enforced a rule with which you disagree,
or made a change you did not like,
and I've done so with more devotion to truth than to charity.
There’ve been times when
I’ve failed to practice what I’ve preached,
or when I tried to make a joke, but it just wasn’t funny.
I know I can’t please everybody all the time
(and I’m learning that there are some people
I simply can’t please at any time),
but by-and-large I’m doing the very best I can.
And yet—because I’m a man before I’m a priest—
I have bad days and days when I’m tired,
days when I’m selfish and days when I sin,
days when I’ve hurt you, failed you, let you down.
And for them all, I’m truly sorry.

But I’m sorrier still for any time
when I’ve let those experiences of being called to task
hold me back from saying or doing
what I know, deep down, to be the right thing.
I worry, yes, about the ways in which, as your pastor,
I must give an account to you;
of far greater concern, however, is the account
which I must one day give before almighty God.
St. John Mary Vianney,
the heavenly patron of parish priests
besides whose image I stand in this pulpit today,
once wisely advised:
“Do not try to please everybody.
Try to please God, the angels, and the saints—
these are your public.”
He also very frankly added elsewhere,
“If you are afraid of other people’s opinion,
you should have not become a Christian.”

These are not easy times to be a faithful priest
because these aren’t easy times to be a true Christian.

I was mightily encouraged a few weeks back
when I read an article about
11-year-old Brett Haubrich of St. Louis.
Brett has inoperable brain cancer,
and is undergoing chemo and radiation.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation offered Brett
the chance to do just about anything he wanted…
go to Disneyland, meet a celebrity…
…but he didn’t really want anything like that.
Finally, they asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up.
His first choice?  A priest.
And so, on Holy Thursday,
Brett fulfilled his wish as a “priest for a day.”
They dressed him up in a black cassock and Roman collar,
and he served Mass at the cathedral for the archbishop—
right alongside the seminarians—not once, but twice that day:
at the Chrism Mass in the morning,
and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper in the evening.
He shared a luncheon for priests and deacons,
and had dinner in the archbishop’s residence.
The archbishop even washed his feet.
When asked his favorite part of the day,
Brett said, “The whole thing.
It was really neat for them to let me do this stuff.
Just a really cool experience.”

Now, Brett didn’t have to preach on a hot-button subject.
He didn’t have to tell somebody they couldn’t be a godparent.
And he didn’t receive an anonymous note
accusing him of ruining the whole parish.
But he was exactly right:
it’s the “whole thing” that makes the priesthood
such an incredible vocation.
Sure, there are moments
when you get to do “neat” and “cool” stuff—
but the beauty and power of this calling
are far, far greater than that.
And, yes, it’s hard sometimes—
really hard sometimes—
yet even with the “b-a-a-a-d moooods”
(mine and everybody else’s),
it’s a life I’d choose all over again.
Of course, it’s not about my choosing.
I wasn’t hired; I was called.
If I had been hired, there’d be a quitting time—
be priest for a day or a decade,
when it’s comfortable or convenient.
But since a priest is called by God,
I must keep laying down my life—
like Christ, with Christ, for Christ—
and resist every temptation to ever act sheepishly,
whether fending off wolves or facing the flock.

Please pray for your priests.
And pray for Brett and his family.
Pray for vocations to the priesthood—
and actively encourage the young Catholic men you know
to give it some serious thought and prayer.
And let’s pray for courage, too, for shepherds and sheep alike,
that we might all be true to the calling we have received from God.


Unknown said...

Your parish is truly blessed to have you.

Fr. Joe said...

You're very kind.