04 August 2006

Priesthood: to do or to be?

St John Vianney: Ezekiel 3.17-21 and Matthew 9.35-10.1
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Serra Club

Our teacher, a twenty-something yuppie, asked me in class about my career plans. I answered, “I’m going to be a Catholic priest.” He gave me a blank stare, snickered, and then became openly hostile, grilling me aggressively about my vocation. When he insisted that I prove God’s existence by rubbing some of my Lourdes water on his tennis elbow, I ended the harassment with my own openly hostile stare.

Jesus tells his disciples to pray for more laborers for the field after he notes with pity, with compassion the sorry spiritual state of those gathered in the crowd. Looking out over them he sees diseased, abandoned, troubled souls who need the cure and healing of their Father’s mercy. They are sheep without a shepherd, a nation without a purpose. And so, Jesus provides both shepherds and a purpose.

Notice the pattern: Jesus goes around teaching and preaching, curing every disease. He sees the need of the crowd, is moved by compassion, orders his students to pray for vocations, gives them his authority over unclean spirits and then they go around teaching and preaching, curing every disease. In receiving Christ’s authority, the disciples become Christ’s priests; they minister to God’s people in persona Christi Capitis—in the person of Christ the Head of the Church. In effect, they are Christs!

We cannot forget this when we promote vocations to the priesthood nor can we ever allow those ordained to the priesthood to forget this. The temptation to reduce the ordained priesthood to an ecclesial function, a job with a skill-set is not easily resisted these days. Our American penchant for pragmatism and egalitarianism moves us very easily to the conclusion that “being a priest” is merely “acting as a priest.” In other words, “I am a priest b/c I function as a priest.” If my function is my identity, then anyone capable of functioning as a priest can be a priest. Questions of a legitimate call to service, proper spiritual disposition, gender, marital status, willingness to submit to ecclesial authority—all of these are irrelevant. The only question that matters is: can he/she do the job?

But is this the pattern we find in Matthew’s gospel? No. Jesus did not call the crowd to be laborers for the harvest. He called The Twelve. Jesus was not moved by political indignation at the treatment of marginalized groups He was moved by compassion for troubled souls. Jesus did not empower his disciples to challenge entrenched structures of social oppression and economic injustice. He gave them the authority to heal, the power to make the troubled whole again.

I am absolutely confident that no member of the Serra Club would treat a young man called to priesthood or anyone called to religious life the way my teacher treated me! But the temptation to clerical functionalism is more subtle, more seductive. It seems right to our hard-working, middle-class ears. It seems right to us when we ask one another: “What do you do?” rather than “Who are you?” It seems right to assume that the job the priest does—pastor, campus minister, professor—is who he is.

So, I will end with this question: do we truly understand what we are promoting when we promote vocations to the priesthood?

02 August 2006

Field, pearl, treasure

Blessed Jane Aza: Jeremiah 15.10, 16-21; Matthew 13.44-46
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

The gospel has a price. No, I don’t mean that we ought to be charged admission to hear the gospel read and preached. What I mean is that though our redemption is freely given, a gift from God for His greater glory, the call to serve the Lord as apostolic witnesses to His truth and mercy comes with consequences and tasty temptations.

Jesus tells his disciples what will happen to them when they go out into the world to preach: rejection, persecution, violence, death, and the occasional, glorious conversion. Though they will be strengthened by his Holy Spirit, they will also be dogged step by step by forces contrary to the Word, forces dedicated to the slavery of the human heart and mind. These forces will flash meaty temptations to distract and to discourage the vigorous delivery of the gospel These forces will exact a price for the apostles’ obedient focus and their zealous hearts.

But Jesus also tells the disciples that the kingdom of heaven is worth the work, more than worth the price. Buried in a field the kingdom is a treasure worth the price of the whole field. The kingdom is a pearl worth one’s entire fortune. The question now is: you have the field with its treasure and the pearl worth your fortune, what do you do with them? I think our answer to this question shines a bright light on two temptations we face as a Church right now. The temptation to assimilate and the temptation is isolate.

Jesus charged his disciples with the task of preaching his Word. He did not charge them with the task of preaching the gospel of popular culture nor did he charge them with the task of hoarding the Word. He did not tell them to blend in and tell pleasing stories. Nor did he tell them to build walled cities and keep the gospel-treasure a secret.

We are tempted in our anxiety to isolate, to hold-up in safe and solid walls of familiar routine and rote formula. The treasure is too precious to tarnish with exposure and so it must be well-guarded. And here we succumb to disobedience. Go out and preach, Jesus says. Go out and preach. We are also tempted in our desire for popular approval to assimilate, to dissolve into our culture by dropping the difficult teachings of Christ. Surely it is easier to simply wave over potentially divisive teachings like his claim to be our only Messiah than it is to preach the uniqueness of the salvation he offers us. Both of these temptations are red meat for the beasts of our arrogance, our laziness, our pride, and our self-righteousness.

The treasure we have given our souls to possess is kept rich, plentiful, well-stocked, and desirable in the sharing of it, in the giving of it away. To hoard it for ourselves in our anxiety or to destroy it in our need for cultural approval is joyless, empty waste. When we hoard the gospel we cannot be heard behind our walls. When we prostitute the gospel to the our culture we have nothing worth saying.

God says to Jeremiah: “If you repent…if you bring forth the precious without the vile, you shall be my mouthpiece. Then it shall be they who turn to you; and you shall not turn to them.”

31 July 2006

ad majorem Dei gloriam

St. Ignatius of Loyola: I Cor 10.31-11.1 and Luke 14.25-33
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

You can only witness faithfully to what is first in your life. So, you had better think before you sign on to be a student of the Master of Charity. You had better consider carefully the price of his education.

In the last few weeks, Jesus graduated his friends from disciples to apostles, making missionaries out of students. In the commencement address on graduation day Jesus exhorts them to go out into the world relying solely on the abundant goodwill of those to whom they will witness, taking no second cloak, no sandals, no money. He warns them carefully that their witness will not be always be heard as faithful testimony. Sometimes it will be heard as blasphemy, sometimes as sedition, and sometimes as an inconvenient truth. Regardless of how their witness is heard, Jesus tells them that they are to give glory to God first and only and speak as ones who have seen and heard. And this simple act of fidelity is guaranteed to get them all killed. And it does.

If you will apply for this program in the School of Wisdom and Love, Professor Jesus has some words of advice for you at the beginning of this school year: if you will not put aside your parents, your siblings, your children, even your own life, you cannot be admitted. This program of conversion and witness requires dedicated focus, undivided loyalty. If you will not carry your own cross and walk gladly to your own execution, then you do not meet the perquisites for admission. If you will not calculate the cost of your discipleship, you are not ready for these final exams. You pay tuition in blood, sweat, and tears. There is no financial aid.

Now, all that seems just a little dramatic for us sitting here in Irving, TX in 2006. No one is ever going to ask any of us here to put aside a husband or wife, or abandon our children, or to take up a cross and hang for our witness. Our situation is more subtle, and therefore, far, far more dangerous.

Here’s the point for us in our postmodern comforts: if you will do this Christian thing, if you will move from being a student to being a missionary and move with any sort of integrity, any sort of fidelity to Christ, you will do so for one reason only: ad majorem dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God…and for that reason alone. You will not do this for the love of husband or wife or children or mother or father. You will not do this to avoid trials, to avoid persecutions. To put anything before the glory of God, to put anything before your witness to the truth of the faith—a science, a philosophy, an ideology, a family—is to ruin everything you are, everything you are as his disciple.

You can only be a faithful witness to what is first in your life. If that is Christ, the Glory of the Father, then everything else—family, friends, career, your cross, everything else makes perfect sense in your discipleship. Our families do not save us. Our friends do not save us. Our careers do not save us. Our degrees do not save us. Our ideological commitments do not save us. Our charitable works do not save us. We are saved in the single historical act of self-sacrifice of Christ on the cross. We are saved in this witness of love and we are saved for the greater glory of God.

Be imitators of Christ: you can only witness faithfully to what is first in your life.