Sunday, October 28, 2012

Called by God

“Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.” Today we celebrate Priesthood Sunday. This is a special day the Church has set aside to honor the Priesthood.  Initially this celebration can sound a bit self-serving, until you look more closely to what the Church hopes to accomplish with this day.  

Today isn’t a priest-appreciation day; it isn’t a day about individual priests, but rather it is about the institution of the Priesthood and how central the priesthood is to our life of faith and how important the priesthood is to all Catholics. It is a day to remind all of us of our need to honor Christ as Priest. We who are priests merely serve under Christ, the one true priest. 

Think for just a moment: where would we be as faithful people without the priesthood? As Catholics, our spiritual lives are built upon the incredible, real encounters with God that we experience in the Sacraments. Jesus purposely left us these Sacraments and the priesthood so that we can know him, that we can follow Him, that we can experience Him until His return in glory. He left us priests to be the instruments that mediate those incredible, real moments with Him. We only have access to this Sacramental life – to these real encounters with God - through those God has called to be priests. 

So, why do we need to have a day in honor of the institution of the priesthood? Well, that should be obvious. Throughout the scandals of the last decade, the priesthood has suffered greatly. Now, please don’t misunderstand me – when priests or bishops, or anyone for that matter do things that are wrong, immoral and even illegal – they must be held accountable for those activities; they must pay the appropriate price for their wrong, but that’s not what I’m speaking of. 

We all know that in the last several years, instead of focusing on individual priests who have done these horrible things, too often we have blamed the institution of the priesthood itself. Throughout the scandal, the media have asked repeated uninformed questions suggesting that the scandal is somehow related to the very nature of the priesthood. Most often attacked is the priestly commitment to celibacy. All this despite the fact that even under the worst-case abuse scenario, you can be certain that more than 97% of priests have been faithful to their vows and their call. Add to this, vocations to priestly life have been on the decline for a few decades now. We may be approaching a time where even a weekly celebration of the Eucharist may not be possible in every parish. We need to be reminded of the importance of and need for priests in our parishes.

The question that I often am stuck with when thinking about the lack of priestly vocations is what can we do? Many of you know that, especially now as vocation director, it is my personal contention that there is no vocation crisis. Instead, the lack of priestly vocations is due to a few things. First, family size has greatly decreased over the last few decades. In 1960, the average Catholic family had three or more children. Today, the average Catholic family has one child. This means, simply, fewer people to become priests. 

And secondly, there is a crisis, but it is a crisis of vocation awareness.  We know that God is calling people to serve His Church as priests. God always calls more than enough for His people. So, the crisis we have is one of awareness. God is calling, but are people listening to that call, are they aware of God’s call in their life? Or are the other voices in the world drowning out that voice of God calling in the depths of their hearts?

We all have a role to play in this regard. It is the job of every Catholic to pray for and encourage vocations to the ordained life.  I’m sure we pray, but how often do we encourage?  Think in your own experience; have you ever said to a young person, “I think you’d make a good priest,” or, “I’m praying for your vocation,” or “Have you ever considered the ordained life?” More often, if someone expresses a desire to pursue a vocation, people are likely to say, “Why would you want to do that?” How will we have priests if we don’t teach our youth that this is a valuable way of life?  Just think of this small neighborhood alone.  The North End used to be a vocation factory.  Just think of the dozens upon dozens of priests that came out of this single neighborhood entering the Franciscans, the Scalabrinis, the Jesuits and the Diocesan priesthood.  This single neighborhood.

If we value the Eucharist; if we value the grace of forgiveness through Confession; if we value having someone at our bedside when we are near death to usher us into Heaven; if we value these and so many things – we need priests.  We all need priests.  Who will be the priests that bring us Jesus into the next generation?

I can tell you that there is nothing quite as incredible as being a priest – if it is what God is calling you to. Through this ministry, God gives you the chance to reconcile people, offer healing, preach His word, bring forth the Body and Blood of His Son. Each and every day of my priestly life is nothing short of miraculous - and most certainly not because of my actions, but because of Christ's actions through me as His priest. I am daily humbled by the way that God allows me – a weak, sinful man – to be in His presence as He mediates His grace to His people through my ministry. My brothers and sisters, think of the people in your life. Is there a young man you think would make a good priest? Pray for him. And just as importantly tell him.

St. Francis of Assisi provides us with an excellent example. In his day was also faced with scandal in the Church. But in the face of sinful individual priests, Francis encouraged everyone to never lose sight of the uniqueness of the priesthood itself, and its importance to every believer; and he encouraged priests to live up to their call. He wrote, “See your dignity, my brother priests, and be holy, because He himself is Holy. And just as above all others on account of this ministry the Lord God has honored you, in this manner also love, revere, and honor Him above all others…Let the whole man tremble with fear, let the whole world begin to completely quake, and let heaven exult, when upon the altar in the hand of the priest is Christ, the Son of the living God!”

My brothers and sisters, I want you to know how much I treasure the priesthood, not only because of the great blessings God has bestowed on me in my life through my own ministry as priest, but because as a fellow Christian, I need priests too – I need someone to reconcile me when I sin, to speak God’s words to me so that I may grow in faith, to heal me, to welcome me, to help me on my journey to Christ. We all need this.

Today, I thank each and every one of you for the honor of serving you as a priest and ask that we all, this day and every day, pray for priests, pray for the institution of the priesthood, pray that God will continue to call workers into his field.

May God give you peace.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Francis, show us how to live and love!


“In truth, in very truth, the presence of Francis, our brother and our Father, was a light not only to us who were close to him, but also to those who were more removed in calling and in life. He was a light sent forth from the true Light to enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, that he might guide their feet into the way of peace.  He did this, even as the true Daystar from on high enlightened his heart and inflamed his will with the fire of his love. When he preached the kingdom of God, when he turned the hearts of fathers to their sons, when he brought the foolish to the prudence of the just, he made ready for the Lord a new people throughout the whole world…For this reason…do not mourn beyond all measure; for God, the Father of orphans will comfort us with his holy consolation. And if you weep, brethren weep for yourselves but not for him; for in the midst of our life we are in death, while he has passed from death to life.”

These are just some of the words from the Encyclical Letter of Brother Elias which announced the passing of St. Francis some 786 years ago.  We gather tonight for what is really our annual celebration of Francis’ death.  It would seem a bit morbid if not for the fact that we gather in the brightness of a new day tomorrow to celebrate the entrance of this holy man - our father, our brother, our founder – into the glory of Heaven; into the glory of eternal life.  I like to revisit the words of Brother Elias, General Minister of the Order at the time of Francis’ passing, each year at this time.   In particular, that last sentence that I read from the encyclical letter tonight is striking.  Do not weep for St. Francis, Elias tells us for “he has passed from death to life.”  What faith-filled insight into the reality of our life on earth and our life in heaven.  “Life is changed, not ended,” as the funeral liturgy reminds us.  The truest life; the fullness of life is what we encounter in eternity, wrapped up in the Beatific vision of our good and loving God.  This is truly, then, a transitus – a passing – for us as well as for him.  We too are meant to pass this night from death to life. 

As I was reflecting on what to share this night, I couldn’t help but think how strongly we need a message about life right now.  Even as we commemorate his death, what does St. Francis have to say to us about life?  I think his example and his message are desperately needed for us today.    A quick scan of our world finds it locked in a struggle with the Culture of Death. Violence continues to rage throughout our world – the violence of terrorism, the violence of war, even the violence in our cities here at home and even our households at times.  The difficult economic crisis in our country and the world continues; the gap between rich and poor continues to widen; it seems that even our civil leaders seem to want to solve our financial problems on the backs of the poor and the marginalized.  We know that the dignity of human life continues to be under siege – not only the ongoing struggle with abortion or the death penalty, but now we see here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts attempts to legalize physician-assisted suicide through a ballot initiative next month.  We unite our prayer this night, through the intercession of St. Francis, along with the prayers of countless thousands across the Commonwealth asking that this horrible initiative fail to pass.

We can be tempted to look at all of this and throw up our hands in despair.  We can be tempted to circle the wagons, to surround ourselves only with like-minded people.  We can be tempted to demonize those who don’t agree with us and count them as simply “other” and not worthy of our love, our care or our attention.  And, this, I think is where St. Francis can help us; where he can show us how to live and how to love in our world.  After all, he didn’t live in a utopian time either.  Francis’ 13th century world was one that was also racked by scandal and poverty and war – in some ways worse than our own.  And yet, look at the impact he had on his world.  As Elias reminded us, “He was a light sent forth from the true Light to enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, that he might guide their feet into the way of peace.”  As we gather in the darkness of this night and commemorate the earthly death of St. Francis, we are reminded that as his faithful sons and daughters, we too are called to be light sent forth from the true Light; we too are called to enlighten the darkness of the world around us.

How did he do it and how are we to?  St. Francis had the uncanny ability to see the very presence of God wherever he looked; even into places that at first might seem dark.  In his fear, he reached out to the lepers and the poor.  In his courage, he visited the Muslim leader Al-Malik Al-Kamil.  In his joy he preached to birds and calmed angry wolves.    In his blindness and illness, he would compose the great Canticle of the Creatures – a hymn that recognizes the presence of God everywhere; in everyone; in everything – even in Sister Death.
And, in his trust, he would receive the very wounds of Christ fully conforming himself to Christ Crucified.  In 1993, Blessed Pope John Paul the Great spoke about this conformity to Christ, “By his life Francis proclaimed…the saving word of the Gospel. The reception of the stigmata on La Verna thus represents that visible conformity to the image of Christ which makes Francis the example to which every Christian can aspire in the process of drawing ever nearer to God the Creator and Redeemer.”

As we reflect upon our Holy Father this night; let us not simply be amazed at what a truly remarkable person he was; what a beacon of light for the Christian faith.  Instead, let us pledge to be like him.  What St. Francis shows us is not a way of life that is so remarkable that it can barely be imitated.  What St. Francis shows us is that the way of life that Jesus Himself has invited us into is within our reach.  If he can do it, so can we. We too can be light reflecting the True Light to the dark places of our world.

We too can be conformed to the image of Christ like he was.  As remarkable as the five wounds appearing on the body of St. Francis are, they are not the true stigmata – the true stigmata can be found not in flesh, but in the soul; in the heart; in the day-to-day.  If the sacred stigmata were merely about flesh-and-bones, it would be an interesting supernatural reality.  But, remember, the stigmata came at the end of his life, not the beginning.  Those wounds were Divine confirmation of a life lived in conformity with Christ, not the goal of it. In other words, St. Francis most profoundly conformed himself to Christ, not in the wounds in his hands, feet and side, but in the way that he loved; in the way that he lived; in the way that he shined. 

And so can we. St. Francis loved as radically as Christ loved; as God loves.  And he shows us that we too can take away all that keeps us from loving fully; all of the challenges, difficulties, hurts, pettiness, prejudices and pains – and make a choice to love others because God has first loved us.  Francis is quoted as having said, “When you leave this earth, you can take with you nothing that you have received - only what you have given: a full heart, enriched by honest service, love, sacrifice and courage. “

Let me end with the words of the current successor of St. Francis, our General Minister José Rodríguez Carballo, who said, “Francis, come among us! We need you to tell us that true joy does not lie in human wisdom, riches, and rewards, but in being faithful to the plan of the Lord. We need you to help us learn that to follow Jesus, there is only one path to take: the path that was trod by him. Francis, we need you to teach us how to…become true friends, imitators, and lovers of Christ. Come, Brother Francis!”

St. Francis, come among us now and show us how to live and how to love.

May the Lord give you peace.

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