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.

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