Sunday, July 22, 2012

Interruption & Pastores Dabo Vobis

(16th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 21 & 22 July, 2012 at St. Joseph's Church in Woonsocket, R.I.  and on 22 July, 2012 at St. Peter's Church in Warwick, R.I.  See Jeremiah 23:1-6 and Mark 6:30-34)

How well do you handle interruptions?  When you are at home, relaxing and reading a good book; or when you are watching your favorite TV show; or maybe when you are at work and your labor is positively productive…and then suddenly the phone rings, or someone arrives unexpected…How well do you handle that?

I ask that question because Christ in our Gospel this weekend is interrupted.  He is doing one of the most essential and important things in His work with the twelve Apostles: teaching them how to rest, how to be still. 

These men are about to be sent out by Christ to spread the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.  In their apostolic ministry they will be active to the point of exhaustion.  Therefore Jesus longs to teach them how to be at peace and to pray, because it is there that they will find a source of strength for untiring service, a wellspring for pastoral zeal.  But just as Christ begins to teach them these vital lessons in the spiritual life, he is suddenly interrupted!

While Christ and the twelve Apostles “went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place” (Mark 6:32), a veritable throng of people, anticipating the direction in which He was heading, arrived at the place before Him.

Jesus’ response to that interruption is amazing.  He was not bothered by them.  He was not even disappointed at the lost opportunity to spend some quiet time with the Twelve.  No, St. Mark tells us in fact that He was overwhelmed with love:

When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd.
—Mark 6:34

He saw those people and sensed deep within Himself that they were hungry, but not for bread; He intuited that they were thirsty, but not for water.  They were hungering and thirsting for the living God, and so He fed them.  As St. Mark tells us, “He began to teach them many things” (Mark 6: 34).  They were being fed by God, shepherded by Christ, the Good Shepherd.  In a word, they were being loved.

This beautiful outpouring of compassionate love we find in the Gospel this weekend is a fulfillment of the prophesy we listened to in the first reading this morning, from the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah.  Noting the widespread suffering and hopeless sorrow of the time, Jeremiah attributes the afflictions of his people to bad leadership, bad shepherds. 

Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord.
—Jeremiah 23:1

God will come out against these shepherds!  He will not tolerate bad shepherds who scatter the sheep and feed themselves on His people.  But nor will He leave His people alone to be scattered and lost.   “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to their meadow” (Jeremiah 23:3). 

God Himself will walk among His sheep, feeding them, pasturing them.  Jesus Christ is that Good Shepherd, leading His sheep to the restful waters of everlasting life.  He will pour Himself out on the altar of the cross to redeem and save the lost and the weary.

But God continues, through the Prophet Jeremiah, “I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble” (Jeremiah 23:4).   “I will give you shepherds” (Jeremiah 3:15), God assures them.

Those words in Latin—Pastores dabo vobis, I will give you shepherds—are the opening words of a document written by our late beloved Holy Father, Blessed John Paul II, back in 1992.     Reflecting on the vital work of forming men for the priesthood of Jesus Christ, Blessed John Paul II reminds us that our hopes rest on nothing less than the faithfulness of God!   

God has promised that the Church will never be without shepherds to guide and guard Her in the faith. 

§  The ineffable gift of the body and blood of Christ that comes to us in the Holy Eucharist is a gift from God, a gift from Heaven…but it comes to us only through the hands and voice of the priest. 

§  The overwhelming consolation of sacramental absolution, when we confess our sins with true sorrow in the Sacrament of Reconciliation entrusted to the Church by Christ Himself for the forgiveness of sins, those words of mercy and new life which come to us from Christ come to us through the priest. 

We will never be without these gifts, we will never be without shepherds called by God and appointed to feed His flock.  But Blessed John Paul II reminds us that such a promise, such remarkable fidelity, calls for our own response in kind:

The total trust in God’s unconditional faithfulness to his promise is accompanied in the Church by the grave responsibility to cooperate in the action of God who calls.
—Blessed John Paul II, Pastores Dabo Vobis, #2

God will never cease to call men to the priesthood, will never cease to appoint shepherds for His people; yet we must never cease to open our hearts to whatever He is asking of us for the fulfillment of that promise.   In short, we must be as willing as Christ is in the Gospel this weekend, to be interrupted.   We must be willing to allow God to interrupt our Church and our personal lives, to do whatever He wants us to do so that His promise will take root and flourish in our midst.

 I can attest to this personally in my life.  In my early twenties I had my own plan for my life; I wanted to be married, to have a family.  I wanted to be successful in a career that would allow me to be fulfilled and happy.   All good things.  But then suddenly that plan was completely interrupted!

For the first time in my life I felt that God was calling out to me, and that He was calling me to the priesthood.  I did not hear a voice audibly from Heaven.  I did not see an angel or experience any supernatural visions.  But I was certain that God was speaking to my heart, calling me to follow Him.  More and more each day I felt that He was calling me to the priesthood.

About that same time, people from Saints John and Paul Parish where I had grown up, where I was baptized and received my First Communion; in the place where I received the Sacrament of Confirmation; people in that parish began to approach me and ask if I might be called to serve the Church as a priest.  Sometimes even people I did not know or recognize would approach and ask me that question: “Have you ever thought about the priesthood?”  Finally in 1998 I entered the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence. 

Now, in 1997 there were only two seminarians in that place.  One of them left, and some people even suggested that the seminary should be closed down.  Nonetheless, in 1998 seven of us began studies there for the priesthood.  The next year there were ten of us.  I continued my formation for four more years in the North American College in Rome and was ordained to the priesthood on June 26, 2004.  By that time the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence began to receive men from nearby dioceses around New England and even as far as Baltimore.  The number of college-age men studying for the priesthood grew to around two dozen.  For the last two years we have had 27 seminarians in formation for the priesthood at Our Lady of Providence from seven separate dioceses.   We have a full house with no empty rooms, because God is faithful.

Pastores dabo vobis.  I will give you shepherds.  The Lord has consistently fulfilled His promise down through the centuries, and He calls each one of us to be faithful and to respond to His abundant grace in our lives and in His Church.  But to do so will involve interruption!  Are we willing to be interrupted by God so that His work will continue to flourish?  I would suggest that there are three ways God is challenging us to be interrupted as we respond to His fidelity in providing shepherds for the Church.

Firstly, we allow God to interrupt our spiritual lives, our prayer lives, as we ask Him fervently for an increase of vocations to the priesthood in the Diocese of Providence.  Prayer was the only instruction Christ gave us with regard to increasing vocations (Luke 10:2).  Perhaps we do not always have vocations in the Church because we do not always ask for vocations in the Church.  The people of Ss. John and Paul Parish were asking God for vocations, and within a five-year period three of us from that parish were ordained to the priesthood.  If you ask God for an increase in vocations, He will listen to you.  Allow God to interrupt your prayer life as you “ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (Luke 10:2).   

Secondly, we must be willing to allow God to interrupt our families and the plans that we have for the people we love.  My parents have been overwhelmingly supportive from the very beginning of my discernment of a priestly vocation.  Such is not always the case, unfortunately, in the Church today.  Having spent six years as a seminarian, and having worked in seminary formation for an additional four years, I can share with you that it is not at all uncommon for the mother or father of a seminarian to be unsupportive as he begins to respond to God’s call in his life. 

Truth be told, these situations seldom discourage me.  What discourages me is when I think of all the young men who I may never meet, who I may never encounter in the seminary, because their mothers or fathers did not support them in answering a call to the priesthood.

Often it is the case that parents want good things for their sons: a successful career, a family, happiness; all good things.  But they are unable to consider that God desires to give them even greater gifts, and fruitfulness that will endure for an eternity beyond this world.  Are we willing to allow God to interrupt our families so that this fruitfulness may continue in the Church?

Finally, I would suggest we allow God to interrupt our lives through a willingness to approach those who we think He might be calling to the priesthood and to share courageously the gift of God that we have come to recognize in them.  Is it possible that God is calling someone from your parish or your family to the priesthood?  Is it possible that you are called to pray for that person and even to approach him on some personal level and offer your support and encouragement? 

Pastores dabo vobis.  I will give you shepherdsGod is so very faithful in His promise and provision of shepherds for His Church.  How is He challenging us this week, and every week, to cooperate in that promise and to allow vocations to the priesthood to flourish in our time?

Sunday, July 01, 2012

The Gracious Act

(13th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 1 July, 2012 at St. Veronica's Chapel in Narragansett, R.I.  See 2 Corinthians 8:7-15 and Mark 5:21-43)

What would it take for you to become a really great golfer, or maybe even a professional?  Perhaps you are not interested in that question at all, but chances are that you at least know someone who is!  There are several important things necessary to be a great golfer.  For instance, you would need to be physically fit; you would have to possess the skills and gifts that allow you the capacity for becoming a great golfer. 

But there is still something else beyond all those things, without which you could never reach your fullest potential on the golf course: you have to have a good, consistent golf swing.

It sounds simple enough, but there are people who make tens of thousands—if not perhaps even hundreds of thousands—of dollars a year, not to play golf but to teach other golfers how to swing the club; professional golfers use them all the time.  Indeed, with the right swing, cleared of many or most of the imperfections, a golfer has the potential to dominate the course.  Whether it is the long drive, fairway irons or the short game, a good consistent swing is necessary to play golf well.

I mention that this morning because St. Paul is speaking about something very similar in our second reading this weekend.  No, St. Paul is not talking about golf (although if they had golf in St. Paul’s day he would probably be as good at it as he was in everything else!).  I am referring to an expression that comes up twice in that very short reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians: “this gracious act.”

This gracious act?  Which one?  Firstly, St. Paul is referring specifically to the “gracious act” of the Corinthians who had agreed to provide a monetary gift for those who were less fortunate and in need.  They had more than enough to get by, and had made the decision to give some of their wealth away.  St. Paul encourages them to stay the course, knowing that such a “gracious act” will not only enrich those less fortunate, but that such charity will come back to enrich them, as well:

May you excel in this gracious act also…as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their needs, so that their abundance may also supply your needs.
—2 Corinthians 8:7,14

At the Second Vatican Council, in the document on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, the Council Fathers would go on to describe something very similar to St. Paul’s interpretation of the “gracious act.”  Used frequently by Blessed John Paul the Great and referred to often as “The Law of the Gift,” Gaudium et Spes insists that “Man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes, #24).

It has much more to do with one’s will and progress in the path of virtue than with one's wallet (although those first two things will undoubtedly influence the third).  It is when one is generous in forgiveness, in friendship, in time and in the basic attitudes of life with God and others, pouring oneself out generously in love; only then does one truly discover happiness and the fulfillment that remains elusive for so many.

Fittingly, when encouraging “this gracious act” of the Corinthians, St. Paul makes reference to another “gracious act,” performed by Christ:

For you know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
—2 Corinthians 8:9

 OK…so which act is that?  Perhaps St. Paul is referring to the Incarnation: God, who exists eternally in heaven and is in need of nothing, suddenly enters time and space to be born in a poor stable in Bethlehem.   Through that one gracious act, God became man and made it possible for us to know the living God!  In His poverty He enriched the entire world.

St. Paul, however, would never have limited “the gracious act” of our Lord to the Incarnation alone.  Like a good consistent golf swing, Christ perpetuated His poverty and multiplied our riches by pouring himself out over and over again.    

At the Last Supper, gathering with those closest to Him in this world on the night before He suffered and died, He took bread and offered it to them, saying, “This is my body.”  It was all He had, His very sustenance, and He was giving it to them, to take and to eat.  “This is the chalice of my blood,” He said to them, sharing how His blood would be poured out for the forgiveness of sins and the redemption of the world.  He had nothing more to give.   Christ, completely impoverishing Himself at that sacred meal, enriched those first disciples with the fullness of Divine life. 

The next day he offered Himself up as a sacrifice on the altar of the cross, pouring out His life, His breath, everything He had; in that gracious act we inherited the forgiveness of our sins and the richness of God’s mercy.  The gates of heaven swung wide open to let in the beggars and paupers that we are before His Majesty, the King!

Even still, in the Gospel this morning, Christ continues to pour Himself out in that gracious act that enriches those who come into contact with Him.  That poor woman who had suffered for twelve years, reached out in desperation for healing and hope, and suddenly received abundantly more than she could have possibly imagined.    Christ immediately perceived “that power had gone out from him” (Mark 5:30) just as surely as the woman “felt in her body that she was healed in her affliction” (Mark 5:29).

 So it is with the daughter of Jairus, who is dead.  Christ touches her, raises her up and restores her to health in that gracious act of healing and love.  Over and over again, Christ constantly gave of Himself and enriched the world around Him. 

What about us?

How could we ever hope to consistently perform such gracious acts in our own daily lives?  Don’t we know all too well our weakness and sin, indeed the very reason why He became man to take on our humanity and redeem us?  Of ourselves we could never hope to act so powerfully, so graciously.  

Jesus Christ, however, lives in us.  By virtue of our baptism we have received the very grace of God and a share in His Divine life.  No matter how many times we fail or how far we fall, Christ has the power to renew us and set our hearts on fire once again.  If you find this difficult to believe than read the Acts of the Apostles, or simply ask St. Paul.

Which brings me back to my original question: what does it take to be a great golfer, or perhaps even a professional?  Truth be told, in one hundred years that question will not matter to a single soul reading this today.  But there is a question that should be in the heart of every single one of us, and if not then our spiritual lives are in big trouble.  That question is:

What does it take to be a saint? 

What does it take to grow in holiness in this life, to grow in friendship with God while we are here on this earth, so that we can live with him forever in the eternal bliss of heaven?

The answer to that question is: One gracious act.  Allowing Christ to so live in us that the one gracious act is performed, over and over again in our lives…starting now…and continuing consistently until the moment that we enter eternal life.