Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ss. Peter and Paul: Called, Strengthened, Sanctified

(Solemnity of Ss. Peter and Paul-Year A; This homily was given 27 June 2014 at St. Joseph Church, West Warwick, R.I. and 28 June 2014 at St. Sebastian Church in Providence, R.I.; See Galatians 1:11-20 and John 21:15-19)

This weekend we celebrate the Solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, patron saints of the Diocese of Providence and the two great pillars upon which Christ would build His Church.  In the City of Rome, which was consecrated by the blood of Saints Peter and Paul and the first Christian martyrs, there are two magnificent statues, just outside St. Peter’s Basilica: St. Peter, clutching firmly the keys of the kingdom, and St. Paul, holding majestically the sword which symbolizes the instrument of his martyrdom.  These men proclaimed the message of the Gospel with boldness; they stood witness before governors and kings; they were fearless in the face of danger.  In a world as hard as stone these men were a bulwark of strength and a force to be reckoned with.

But Sacred Scripture and the two great Apostles themselves are quick to remind us that this was not always the case.  We know from many passages in the New Testament that Peter the Fisherman was stubborn and proud.  Worse still, he denied the Lord three times. 

The Gospel for the vigil Mass of this solemnity tells us of Jesus’ threefold restoration of that heartbreaking denial: “Peter, do you love me?”  The third time Jesus asks him that question, we are told, Peter was grieved.  He did not yet realize that Jesus was giving him another chance, an opportunity to make amends.  Jesus would teach him, in that moment, that forgiveness, restoration and mercy must be translated into fidelity and fruitful service:

Simon, Son of John, do you love me? . . . Feed my sheep.
—John 21:17

We see the same mystery at work in the Apostle, St. Paul.  He tells us in his own words: “I persecuted the Church beyond measure and tried to destroy it” (Galatians 1:13).  In the Acts of the Apostles we read how he was present at the stoning of St. Stephen.  He held the coats of the men who did it and approved of the killing!  In his letter to St. Timothy he tells us, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man” (1 Timothy 1:13). 

These men had weaknesses.  They were not perfect.  They were not strangers to failure and the discouragement that come from a life marked by moments of regret.

But God called them. 

Jesus Christ called these men, personally, and consecrated them to Himself.  He strengthened them in that consecration and he made them holy through countless moments of trial, suffering, joy, prayer, and faithful service in His Church.  They were weak men, but God made them strong.  They were not perfect, but God perfected them and made them holy, and they became the great Apostles that we celebrate this weekend.

This is the context I would like to call our attention to as I ask you—plead with you—to pray for priestly vocations in the Diocese of Providence.  We are in need of priestly vocations in our diocese, but not just that God would give us many more men to be ordained to the priesthood.  What we need desperately in these times are men like St. Peter and St. Paul; men who, though weak and imperfect, can be made perfect and become holy through their consecration to Jesus Christ.

For the past three years I have served the Church as the rector of the Seminary of Our Lady of Providence, helping to form men for the priesthood.  Just this week I celebrated my 10th anniversary of priesthood.  The priesthood is the joy and passion of my life.  And so I can speak from experience when I share with you that God does not choose the elite, the strong, the perfect.  God calls the weak, the imperfect, and those who are all too aware of their faults and failings, and then it is His desire, His plan, His daily work to strengthen them in their consecration to Jesus Christ.  God sanctifies those whom He calls—often times through trials, sufferings, humiliations, service, prayer, sacrifice and faith—and He forms them in the heart of Jesus Christ the Great High Priest.  That is what we need to pray for when we plead with the Lord for priestly vocations.

This year is the first time in the Diocese of Providence since 1944 that we will not have any ordinations to the priesthood.   For three years I have been sharing with people in parishes throughout the diocese that we have 26 rooms in the seminary and they are all full.  This year is the first year that I will not be able to say that.  We will have several empty rooms this formation year, several places that remind us of the need to be vigilant in prayer for priestly vocations. 

But not just any men.  Not just 100 men in the next 10 years, or 12 men to enter the seminary next year.  What the Church needs, what the people of God deserve, is men who are aware of their own weaknesses, who are surrendered to the work of God and the building up of the Kingdom of God, who in their consecration to Jesus Christ in the priestly office can be strengthened and made holy as priests of Jesus Christ.

Which leads me to a story of another patron saint, St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests.  In the late 18th century, the nation of France underwent one of the bloodiest revolutions the world had ever seen.  It left in its wake a country devastated and a Church disintegrated and dispersed. 

The attempt to abolish religion from public life had failed miserably, and now the people were suffering the consequences.  In the midst of this crisis, a young man named John Vianney felt God calling him to the priesthood.

Despite his reputation for great sanctity, no bishop wanted him.  He was what we would refer to today as “academically challenged,” and when one bishop finally did accept him, he assigned Vianney to a small parish in the obscure village of Ars, where it was hoped that he wouldn’t do too much damage!

St. John Vianney looked around him and saw a weary and worn out people, many of who no longer practiced their faith.  He would often pray: “Lord, I am willing to suffer anything at all, only convert my people.  That is all I ask.” 

Many years went by, and eventually things did begin to change.  It was slow at first, but eventually people began to come back to Church.  Before long, the entire village was converted, and many became convinced that their parish priest was a saint.
At that time the most remarkable thing began to happen.  People from all over France started to make pilgrimages to that small village.  Thousands of people came there to attend Mass and to have their confession heard by this simple and unimpressive priest.  He was known at times to sit in the confessional for 18 hours in a day.  Eighteen hours!  Not only Ars, but all of France was being converted. 

There is a remarkable story that one day the devil himself confronted John Vianney and shouted at him through a possessed person:

Vianney!  If there were three of you in all of France,
my kingdom would be destroyed!

Satan was not all that concerned with the thousands of Catholic priests serving throughout France at that time.  But he was really concerned, even thoroughly frustrated, with this one.

We need priests in the Diocese of Providence, men who perhaps have their own weaknesses and challenges to face, but nonetheless men who in their consecration to Christ can be strengthened and set firm in proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  We do not need dozens of men each year; we do not need a hundred men in the next ten years.  

Maybe we only need three.  Maybe we just need three men, like Peter the Fisherman from Galilee, or Paul the tentmaker from Tarsus, or John Vianney in the little village of Ars.

May God grant the Church, in our lifetime, men of faith, men who love the Church, men of prayer and fidelity to the teachings of Jesus Christ, so that He may strengthen them in their consecration to Him, sanctify them in holiness of life, and send them out to destroy the kingdom of evil and build the Kingdom of God.