This homily was posted even later than usual. And you didn't see one the last two weeks: the first, because we had a visiting preacher speaking on behalf of the missions, and the second, because I never found the time to type it up. That's the thing: getting these online requires me to carve out 2 hours or so after the Masses...and I'm finding that more and more difficult to do. Which is to say, you'll be seeing these less frequently from me. When time allows, I'll put one up, but it won't be every Sunday. Some have recommended recording my homilies, which I will consider. Thanks for reading all these years, and for your kind feedback. Stay tuned for whatever comes next...
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time B
Last night, after dinner, I took Fr. Tojo down to the Franklin County Fair. Our main goal was to get some fried bread dough for dessert. But while we were there, I thought I should also give him his first taste of something uniquely American: the demolition derby. On our way to the grandstand, I thought I ought to try to explain what he was about to behold…but how do you explain the demolition derby? As I heard the words coming out of my mouth, it all sounded perfectly ridiculous. (Deacon Nick told me this morning that I should have said, “From what I’ve heard, it’s just like driving in India.”)
How do you explain the demolition derby?
How do you explain the Catholic priesthood?
Today is the eighteenth anniversary of my ordination as a priest. And the readings we have just heard are the very same ones that were proclaimed at my first Mass. At the time, my attention was understandably focused on the gospel, as we hear again from Jesus’ discourse on the Bread of Life—certainly appropriate words when beginning a life of ministry centered on the Eucharist.
But these eighteen years later, I’m thinking I really should have paid more attention to the first reading.
From the First Book of Kings, we hear part of the story of Elijah—the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. We find him hiding under a broom tree, praying for death. Some context tells us why. Elijah was at work during some very dark times. God’s one chosen people had split into two different kingdoms—neither one of them faithful to the Lord’s covenant. They had made foreign alliances, rather than trusting in God’s protection. They had crowned kings for themselves, instead of following God’s divine guidance. And they were worshiping idols and many strange gods—forgetful of the one true God who had claimed them as his own.
To gain God’s people back, Elijah had just won a spectacular and decisive victory over 400 heathen prophets at once—even calling down fire from heaven. But rather than seeing great crowds turning back to the Lord, Elijah sees them turn and walk away. And not only that, but the queen—Jezebel—who was rather fond of these false prophets and their false gods, has now vowed to kill him.
It’s little wonder we hear Elijah praying, “Enough!” Later in the chapter, we hear God ask, “Why are you here, Elijah?” And the prophet lays out exactly how he feels: “I have been most zealous for you, Lord God of hosts, since the sons of Israel have forsaken your covenant, torn down your altars, and slain your prophets with the sword, and I—I alone—am left, and now they seek to take my life.”
I have to admit: sometimes I feel that way, too.
Sure, every newly ordained priest is a bit naïve about just what he’s gotten himself into. But I look back over these eighteen years and have to ask, “Who woulda thunk?” When I was in the seminary, we hade about 125 active diocesan priests in the Diocese of Ogdensburg; today, we have about 50—and only 4 of those are younger than I am. Who woulda thunk? Given my training, I expected—and with good reason—that I would soon enough end up teaching at Wadhams Hall. But a year-and-a-half into my priesthood, the seminary closed. Who woulda thunk?
Who woulda thunk that at the tender age of 35 I’d be appointed the pastor of what was at the time the largest conglomeration of parishes in the diocese? And who woulda thunk that in eight years here, I would have presided over the merger of those four parishes and the closure of two of our churches, and would now be preparing for by far the largest sale in diocesan history of a former church building?
Would woulda thunk that these years would be marked by so much scandal caused by Catholic clergy? Not once, but twice, have I had to announce to parishes that their pastor has been removed from priestly ministry for sexually abusing minors. I’ve heard heart-wrenching tales directly from victims and their families—yes, even here in our own parish. And now such scandal is erupting again. You probably haven’t heard much about it yet, but you will (unless, of course, it gets swept under the rug again). A retired archbishop—a cardinal!—has been brought down in disgrace. In the last month or two, new stories of cover-ups and patterns of sexual sin among priests and bishops have arisen in a number of dioceses, a number of seminaries, in this country and around the world. It’s painful. It’s ugly. It’s discouraging. Who woulda thunk?
St. Paul tells us this Sunday to do nothing that would grieve the Holy Spirit with whom we have been signed and sealed as God’s own. Priests have been sealed twice, and bishop’s three times. How aggrieved must the Holy Spirit be at their heinously sinful behavior?
It kinda makes a guy want to go out and look for a broom tree.
So what’s a priest supposed to do? He’s supposed to do what priests have always been supposed to do. He needs to be holy. That’s the only appropriate response to sin and corruption. And he needs to be faithful—all the more so when infidelity is all around. To be holy, to be faithful: that’s a vocation that is common to us all—the call to be saints—whether you’re in the pew or at the altar. Our vocations depend on one another. I cannot help you become holy and faithful if I am not those things first myself.
Holiness and fidelity take effort and discipline, to be sure. But they also require more than our mere human strength. We look again to Elijah. What is he given when the task seems too difficult and the road ahead too long? God sends him encouragement, in the form of an angel who tells him, “Get up! Keep going!” And God also sends him food and drink, which are clearly no ordinary bread and water since they’re the fuel that allows him to walk 40 days and 40 nights to the Lord’s mountain. We should note that the angel must insistently force Elijah to eat. It would have been much easier for him to quit. But God isn’t giving him an easy way out. He sends Elijah back to his mission with the promise, “I am with you. And those who have remained faithful—however small their number—they’re with you, too. I need you, they need you, to keep going.”
The Lord is still sending messages of encouragement under many disguises. And he’s still feeding us, too—as he will again in a few moments here—with something way beyond ordinary bread: with his own person, with his own flesh, with very the Bread of Life. The Holy Eucharist is the heart of Jesus Christ, God’s eternal love made mortal man, in a form that we can taste and see. You see, with the Eucharist—as with all of priestly life and ministry—it all, always, comes down to love: Christ’s unconditional love for me, my less-than-perfect love for him, my real and true love for you. That’s what keeps me going, despite it all. And it not only keeps me going; it keeps me joyful. The bottom of my chalice and paten are inscribed with words from Psalm 116: “How can I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?” Yes, there’s much struggle, but there are far more graces and blessings. “I shall take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.” I continue to do so with joy.
So much has changed in the eighteen years since my ordination, but I am just as certain today as I was back then: that Jesus Christ himself called me to be his priest, and that I’m right where I’m supposed to be, trying my best to do what the Lord wants me to do. That I still love being a Catholic priest even in the midst of so many challenges…makes even less sense than the demolition derby!
How do you explain the demolition derby?
How do you explain the priesthood?
Another way to ask the question: How do you explain love?
St. John Vianney is the patron saint of parish priests. He, too, served Christ and his Church during some rather dark and difficult times. In fact, on more than one occasion, he fled by night from his small parish in the French countryside, hoping to have taken refuge in a quiet monastery before his flock noticed that he was gone. His scheme never worked. Here’s how Fr. Vianney explained the priesthood:
“Only in heaven will [a priest] fully realize what he is.”
“Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die: not of fright, but of love.”
“The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus.”
My friends, I ask you to please pray for me and for all of my brother priests. Pray, too, for our seminarians and all who are discerning a vocation to the priesthood. Pray that we will be faithful. Pray that we will be holy.