Sunday, August 01, 2004

Jesus wants priests, but do we? Let's stop criticizing the Church: "O Lord, You have been our refuge, from one generation to the next."

Last night, Fr. Brian and I found ourselves chatting about the tensions that seem to persist in our Church, from one diocese to the next. Over the years, during my travels, I have heard so many "horror stories" of priests and laity being persecuted for simply receiving with confidence the teachings and discourses of Pope John Paul II, for continuing to believe in our Church's belief in the value of the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience, or for other reasons. It might be true to say that in most, if not in all dioceses, there exist tensions between clergy and laity who want to remain faithful to the living tradition of faith and others who passionately want Church tradition to catch up to the rapidly moving culture. If we are embarrassed with our Church, then perhaps we will also find ourselves embarrassed at the Lord when we see Him face to face. Jesus declared that if we are embarrassed at Him, then He too will be embarrassed at us when He brings us before his Father in his kingdom after we die.

For years now, we have been perplexed by the waste of energy and what almost amounts to paralysis, whereby churches don't reach out much to the unchurched or aren't sufficiently enthused about the Gospel to proclaim it high and wide. Those who want to remain faithful to the tradition fear the sharp attacks of those whose demands for reform are unending; while these show signs of contempt for those whom they see as blindly locked up in the past. Our inability or unwillingness to be at peace with our faith tradition and see God's will at work in it is tearing us apart and depleting our vital energy and hope. We can be disheartened by the pressures coming at us from other clergy or other dioceses, or from the people, who seem at times more motivated by what they want than by what they give. We sense we are using up too much of our days trying to maintain the sanctuary and not enough in actively shepherding the flock. How many eagerly offer to work with us, to take on all that the laity can do; so that the priests we still have can busy themselves with the sacramental and pastoral labor that is properly theirs? I thank the Lord for those who do practice their faith and actively participate in the mission of the Church with us. Everywhere the Lord is there are signs of life and love.

Similarly, many religious orders wonder why they are attracting so few vocations, but some of them have become embarrassed about their founders or else have wandered so far from their original spirit or charism and purpose for coming into being. For too long, they were obsessed with their identity or appearance, and struggled against their charism as a yoke they needed to get freed of, rather than see it as a discipline that could give shape to their charity. We diocesan clergy have far too often succumbed to similar traps of self-absorption. Is it any wonder that we struggle with vocational sterility? Only the Lord and Giver of Life can restore our generativity. I rejoice at the signs of hope the Lord is raising up in the persons of younger priests and religious who enter into the fray with zeal for the Gospel, enthusiasm for the Lord, and tender pastoral charity for the children of God. Their selflessness, simple joy, eager spirits, and generous labor is just the kind of stimulation and inspiration we needed. Lord, bring them on!

What exactly is motivating the stresses that are tearing at the fabric of our Church, and where do they come from? I'm all in favor of the current study to enhance the English liturgical texts in order to restore the reverence and deep meaning that were lost in the initial translations. We have become familiar with them and don't realize the poverty of the language until we see better translations of the original latin and french texts. However, I don't understand why there continues to be such tinkering with the Liturgy - as though the ritual texts were worn out and we needed to reinvent them - when our attention would be better given to catechesis and evangelization.

Do we need to be laboring so much to get more women and laymen into the sanctuary when we are doing so little to promote the foundational vocation of priesthood? It was right and good 40 years ago to elevate the dignity of the lay faithful and open up for them their proper place and participation in the mission of the Church, but that is done now; yet we seem obsessed with pounding that dead horse into the ground, while we watch the average age of our priests climb over 65. Must we see the last priest die to realize there is no Eucharist, no Penance and Reconciliation, no full Sunday assembly without priests? As we see what the Spirit is doing in the whole Church, it is plain that Jesus still wants priests; but do we?

There was a Catholic Japanese faith community that survived for centuries without priests: they could pray, learn and teach about the Holy Scriptures, baptize, and serve those in need, but they couldn't bring about the Holy Eucharist and have the fullness of Christian community. They didn't have a choice because all their priests were martyred, killed. We do have a choice, but we hesitate to make it. We seem embarrassed by the brazen arrogance of our worldwide culture, with its extreme positions in favor of individual supremacy and freedom of choice, and keep silent when we have opportunities to declare ourselves for Jesus Christ and as members of his Roman Catholic Church. As families, we stifle even the remote possibility that our sons might be even for a moment attracted to the life and calling of the priest. We are living out the paradox of continuing to want and even demand services of our priests on the one hand, and on the other hand preferring that priests come from somewhere else, from other families.

How many priests has your family or clan given to the Lord in the past 25 years? 50 years? 100 years? Among your ancestors, have there ever emerged men who responded to this call and became priests? Have you ever even thought about it? Have you ever prayed about it, or been so bold and generous as to ask the Lord to be pleased to grant priestly vocations to your extended family and further asked Him to show you signs of these vocations, that you might encourage the young men to pray about it and remain open to the Lord's call?

These and other questions are among the very many questions that we priests carry as so many burdens before the Lord as we face his people. The more we see the children of God so entirely preoccupied with their own wellbeing and future prospects - with nary a word about God's concerns: the advancement of the Gospel, the conversion of souls, the reform of families and marriages, the discipline and inspiration of the young, the bold proclamation before the world of the holy Name of Jesus, the care of the widow and orphan, assistance to the troubled, the starving, and the poor, and defense of those who are wrongfully accused, exploited, or in any way harmed - the more self-absorbed we see the children of God becoming, the heavier all these questions weigh upon the heart of a priest. I believe we would die prematurely of grief were it not for the extraordinary generosity and creativity of those who do reach out and take responsibility for various projects to the poor and for the Gospel.

Still, so many members of the Body of Christ seem to remain incognito, afraid to declare their attachment to Jesus openly. Will no one dare any longer to bear the Lord's concerns? Won't you open your heart to allow the Lord to put his mark upon you and burn into your soul the radiant sign of his truth and fill you with confidence in his love and mercy? Will you not speak up for the Lord and for his concerns? Will we stubbornly persist in developing and promoting our own plans, without consulting the Lord to know, understand, and promote his plan? He has a wonderful plan, which includes us from conception to death and beyond into eternity. Will we not adopt his plan as our own?

Of course, our hearts are not only burdened with such questions as these, but they are also lifted up by the generous, apostolic spirits the Lord continues to raise up among his people - those who are glad to follow the leadership of Pope John Paul II, those who come with a simple "Father, what can I do to help?", those who do the unthinkable and accept a poorly paid (in terms of current market salary scales) job in the Church and courageously take on one of the many areas of ministry and service that constitute the life of our local parish churches, and those who persevere in drawing attention to the poor and suffering in our world and try to persuade others to "make themselves a neighbor", as Jesus said, to those in need. We priests are also inspired by the army of women and men who courageously take on God's call to live a covenant life of Matrimony and raise children in a society that ridicules those who appear not to be using contraception. The happy children of a family where they know that they are loved continue to give radiant glory to God and hope to a society afflicted with terminal prooccupation with self.

It was good for me this morning to go for a walk into the little country cemetery behind this rural church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Alberton, PEI. The sight of all these grave stones and the realization that all these deceased are now in the presence of God our Father, either in blessedness or purification, or in eternal damnation by their own choice, simply put my mind and heart into proper perspective. The Word of God in today's Liturgy reinforced my mind's grasp of what the Lord is saying to us and my heart's willingness to follow where He leads us. Whether I live or die, I am in God's hands, and He has not given up his mastery over creation and over human society, nor over his Church.

The young man David was anointed by the prophet Samuel at the Lord's command, and from that moment the Holy Spirit rushed upon the lad. The day came when the Philistines and their giant Goliath taunted and embarrassed the Israelite King Saul and his army. Filled with zeal for the Lord, David offered to face the warrior and went out with what was familiar to him and had served him well in defending his father's sheep against the bear, wolf, and lion - his sling. He put out of his mind the two armies that looked on, and thought only of the Lord, who was his strength, and his burning desire to defend the Lord's Holy Name. Because David relied only on the Lord and not on his own strength, the Lord helped him, and he overcame the giant.

"O Lord, You have been our refuge, from one generation to the next! Help us in this time of our confusion as Christian disciples of your Son Jesus, as members of his holy Church, and as people living in the midst of this affluent and confused culture. It appears that only personal motives of greed, the hotbeds of scientific and technological advancement, and the engines of industrial expansion and economic growth, are being so bold as to give shape to our culture, society, and world. Strengthen your children once again with the boldness and courage of the apostles and early Christians - let your Spirit rush upon us as He did upon the young David - and fill us with your power and strength; that we may stand before the world and, with the eloquence only your Spirit can provide, stand as witnesses to your revealed truth and make you known before these new generations arising around us in your extravagant and abundant creativity and love. We make this prayer, for your glory, in the Name of Jesus your Son, our Lord. Amen!"