I would be remiss this morning if I didn’t start off by thanking you all for the gift of Bishop Tobin, who was your Bishop for the past 9 years. The Diocese of Providence and the Diocese of Youngstown have been playing a cosmic game of chess, it seems, and we’ve just taken your bishop!
In the first reading this morning, we hear the beautiful story of the prophet Elisha, successor to the prophet Elijah (you’ll remember Elijah as the one who was taken up to heaven in a great chariot of fire).
Elisha (whose name sounds like his predecessor’s name just a bit) is a traveling prophet, and a very generous couple is so hospitable as to provide a place for him to stay each time he passes through their town. They prepared “a little room for him on the roof”, with a lamp, a table and a bed. It was an ideal place for him to come and rest, and an ideal expression of kindness and hospitality.
When I just arrived here in the Diocese of Youngstown, this past Friday, I drove in from Pittsburgh International Airport, and got all settled into my hotel room. But I wanted to spend a little time in prayer, so I called the Diocese here and asked for the location of the nearest parish. They gave me the address for your parish, Holy Family Church.
I dropped by to introduce myself, and as I rang the doorbell, I was completely unaware of the fact that you were expecting a new associate pastor any day, and that his name was also Fr. Chris! Now, you can already see where this is going.
“Hello,” I said, as the secretary opened the door. “My name is Fr. Chris Mahar, and I just got into town about an hour ago.”
She was delighted to see me! “Oh, welcome, Father! It is so nice to meet you. Would you like to take a look around?”
What a friendly place, I thought to myself. “No thank you,” I said. “I was just hoping to speak with the pastor about concelebrating Mass here this weekend.”
“Oh, I’m sure that will be no problem at all,” she said. “Why don’t you make yourself comfortable? Your room upstairs is all ready. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to take a look around and get to know the place a bit?”
A room upstairs? Get to know the place a bit? How astounding. This is the most hospitable place on the face of the earth, I thought to myself. Why would Bishop Tobin ever leave this place? Yet I began to get the impression that she had mistaken me for someone else. It was only after a few more moments of confused conversation that we cleared up who I was, and who I was not! But for a moment there, I felt like the prophet Elisha himself, with a nice little room prepared all for me!
Now, unfortunately, it’s not always that easy to follow the Lord. Things don’t always go quite that smoothly, and it often requires a great deal of sacrifice to be a disciple of Christ. This morning we find some of the most challenging teachings of Christ on discipleship and love:
Whoever loves father or mother [son or daughter] more than me, is not worthy of me.
Now, it sounds like Jesus is asking us to love our parents and our children less than we would want to. Of course, that cannot be the case. Christ would want us to love our parents and those in our families completely, to love them as fully as we possibly could. It’s just that he wants us to understand, when all is said and done, that we need to love God more.
We are currently experiencing a crisis in the American Church which many have referred to as a vocations crisis. Whether it be here in Youngstown, or in my own Diocese of Providence, the numbers are simply not what they used to be. Just yesterday, in Providence, Bishop Tobin ordained our newest priest, Fr. Roman Manchester. We are grateful for every vocation. But if we look around it is evident that we are experiencing a shortage of priests.
There are many factors involved in this shortage. I do not think that there are any easy answers, there are no quick solutions. However, there is something we can look more closely at this morning, and it has to do with this love Jesus talks about in St. Matthew’s Gospel:
Whoever loves son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.
One of the particular challenges for vocations today is that many parents and families no longer value a call to the priesthood or religious life as they once did. Wanting the very best for their children, parents will sometimes fail to support a son or daughter who feels called to priesthood or religious life.
I know this sounds sad, but I have seen it. I don’t think it is out of any intention to harm the Church or misguide their children; many of these parents want the very best for their children. Out of a misplaced love, they simply fail to recognize that the best for their child might actually be what God wants.
What is needed in the Church now, more than ever, is the same hospitality and welcome for vocations that the prophet Elisha experienced in that first reading. How would you respond if your son or daughter were to say to you this morning: “Mom, Dad, I think God is calling me to the priesthood,” or “I think God is calling me to be a nun”?
I am very fortunate to have supportive and loving parents. I’ll never forget the day I finally shared with them how I felt God was calling me to the priesthood. We were in our kitchen, and my Dad turned to me and said, “We’ve seen this coming for a while now, and we want you to know that, if this is what you think God is calling you to, and this is what He wants, we support you 100%.” What a grace that was, to have such supportive parents! They have continued to be supportive of my vocation every day since.
Now, responding to a call to the priesthood and religious life requires that same love and commitment from the one who is called, as well. We, too, must love God “more than father or mother.” I came here to this diocese to celebrate a wedding, and committing to that responsibility has placed me very far from home. Today I celebrate my first anniversary as a priest. I was ordained just one year ago today. I would love to be home right now, celebrating this day with my Mom and Dad, maybe going out somewhere special for breakfast.
But I truly believe that God has called me to be here with all of you today. Certainly, God cannot be outdone in generosity. I am not with my Mother and Father today, but I celebrate this day with many mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers in Christ, gathered here this morning. I am truly blessed to be a priest here today, and I thank all of you for your hospitality.
My prayer for you this morning is one similar to that of the prophet Elisha in that first reading. He prayed for the couple who were so hospitable to him, that they would have a newborn son by the year’s end. I pray that in the coming year you may have many more sons and daughters here in this parish, many more who will be baptized into the Body of Christ and the family of God.
And I also pray that perhaps one of your sons, or one of your daughters, will say to you: “Mom, Dad, I think God is calling me to the priesthood,” or “I think God is calling me to be a nun.” Let us continue to pray for each other, and for an increase in vocations to the priesthood and religious life, in the days ahead.