03 November 2006

Thoughts about vocations

I’ve been thinking about vocations a lot lately. My province—Province of St Martin de Porres—is having a vocations weekend at the priory on Nov 10-12th. I’ve invited several young men from the university to attend and most of them have accepted. We’re expecting between 10 and 12 retreatants.

I wanted to suggest the following about vocations:

1). There is no vocations crisis. God is calling more than enough men to the priesthood to cover the needs of the Church. The real crisis is twofold: a). crisis of commitment and b). crisis of encouragement. The crisis of commitment is the result of the reluctance of the men who are called to say YES to their call. Most men called to priesthood are opting for careers that will only partially perfect their gifts. They can be happy, of course, but they are not picking up the greater challenge of sacrificial service in the Church. The crisis of encouragement is more complex. Basically, mothers and fathers are not supporting sons who express an interest in say YES to God’s call. This has to do with a decline in the prestige of the priesthood and the easier availability of a formal education for lower and middle-class men. We also have to look to the bishops, their vocation directors, and their discernment and vetting processes. Do the people the bishop trusts to recruit and vet his vocations really believe that an ordained priesthood is necessary for the flourishing of the Church? Is there a culture of priestly community in the diocese? Are the priests happy and encouraging of vocations? Bottomline: no sensible young man with a vocation is remotely interested in signing on to a religious order or a diocese if it is clear that those in charge think his vocation to ordained ministry is an ideological problem, a theological inconvenience, or a political obstacle to the Great Lay Revolution. And no young man is remotely interested in joining an order or a diocese controlled by bitter, angry ideologues who loudly and proudly celebrate the coming demise of the priesthood. Who wants to jump on a failing project as it sinks under the weight of its stewards’ neglect?

2). If we have all the vocations we need, but those vocations aren’t saying YES, what do we need to do? First, give God constant thanks for the vocations He has called. Gratitude sets the stage for humility and the current crisis in commitment and encouragement needs all the humility it can get. Second, pray that God will encourage (literally, “strengthen the hearts of”) those whom He has called. Pray that they will say YES. Third, personally, one-on-one invite a young man to think about priesthood. If there’s any inkling in his mind that he has been called, your affirmation will reinforce that inkling into a stirring and the stirring into a desire and so on. Fourth, make sure that you understand who your priest is. I mean, study up on the nature of the priesthood. Get the Catechism and spend some time studying what the Church teaches about priesthood. Ignore functional models of priesthood (i.e., the priesthood is a job or a role) and ignore attempts to turn the Catholic priest into a Protestant minister (i.e., a minister of the Word in the pulpit but not a priest at the altar of sacrifice!). Also avoid all attempts to understand that priesthood is rooted in baptism only. We all minister to one another out of our baptisms. But the ordained priest ministers out of his baptism AND out of his ordination. To say that he ministers as a priest out of his baptism only is an attempt by some to diminish the sacramental character of Holy Orders and reduce the priesthood to something like a Parochial Facilitator of Charisms. One more thing to avoid: please don’t lump a vocation to the priesthood in with vocations to the married life, the single life, ad. nau. Of course, these vocations are perfectly true and good and beautiful. But we aren’t suffering as a Church from a lack of husbands and single women. Lumping priestly vocations in with all other Christian vocations tends to level the priestly vocation and hides the urgency of the crisises of commitment and encouragement. This is NOT about the priestly vocation being “better” than any other vocation. It is about the Church being loud and clear that we need priests and that we value the vocation for itself and not as a tacked-on afterthought during the prayers of the people.

Those called to priesthood will not be encouraged to say YES to their call until it is crystal clear to them that we need them. Communion Services and other forms of “celebrations in the absence of a priest” only serve to reinforce the idea that a priest for Mass is a luxury. Given all the other negatives about the priesthood these days, do we really need to carry on with our Sunday worship as if the priest were a rare creature slowly moving into extinction? I imagine a young man in the pews at St. Bubba’s, attending a month or two’s worth of Sunday Celebrations in the Absence of a Priest and thinking, “Hey, I don’t need to say YES to God’s call to priesthood. We’re getting along just fine here at St. Bubba’s w/o one.” In fact, why don’t we just elect one bishop somewhere in Kansas to consecrate several warehouses of hosts every week and then use FedEx to ship those hosts to all the parishes in the country for communion services. That way we can get rid of the priesthood and the episcopate altogether. Much cheaper and easier than educating men to be parish priests. Well, I guess we would have to keep one priest and one seminarian in the pipeline at all times as replacements.

Being Perfect as Our Father is Perfect

One of my regular readers wrote to me recently, asking me to speak to the following issue:

“What I really want to say is, that when you are teaching, or when the topic of Confession comes up, please, please, please, tell people that it is God's job to perfect them. I did not understand this and so I think I stayed away for that much longer thinking that I had to be perfect. You'd have thought that every parish I went to was populated by Saints, not by people just like myself who were really struggling!”

The Catholic understanding of redemption is simple: God became man so that man might become God (2 Peter 1.4 and 1 John 4.7-13). Christ makes it possible for us to partake in the divine nature. I teach my students here at UD this definition of Catholic spirituality: spirituality in an academic setting is the study of the ways that we are perfected in our participation in the divine nature. Notice the passive voice of the verbs in that sentence. That is very intentional. We are perfected. We do not perfect ourselves. Aquinas teaches that an imperfect creature cannot perfect itself. For an imperfect creature to be perfected it must be perfected by something more perfect than itself. For us, that’s God—Perfection Himself. The spiritual project that we are cooperating with is the conversion of our lives in such a way that we are living now as if we were already in heaven. The five-dollar theological phrase for this is “living eschatologically,” living toward the Eschaton (The End). Our End is always God. Our Goal, Purpose, Reason for Existence, The Point of Us Being Here is God. Nothing we can do, say, believe, think, feel, or buy will perfect us. Because everything we can do, say, believe, think, feel, or buy is imperfect as well and nothing imperfect can perfect the imperfect. Bottomline: you exist b/c God is Being Himself. You are redeemed b/c God is Love Himself. You are being perfected b/c God is Perfection Himself. You will come to live with Him forever in heaven b/c God is Beauty Himself.
Fr. Philip, OP

Love makes you fat, bald, and stupid

St. Martin de Porres: Philippians 4.4-9 and Matthew 22.34-40
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass & Church of the Incarnation

Here are a few reasons why we should ignore Jesus’ command to love one another. Oh, “loving God,” by the way, is fine b/c that’s mostly an abstract sort of thing that doesn’t really require us to do much beyond saying that we love God. It’s not like the God-lovers glow or anything. OK. Back to the reasons to ignore Jesus:

1). Love is messy and it makes you act stupid: as a passion love is fine, but when indulged it turns the lover into a hopeless mess and promotes really dumb decision-making. Take Jesus, for example. Because he indulged in loving us, he ended up a real mess on a whipping post and nailed to a cross. He could’ve stopped the blood bath at any point and gotten off that brutal carnival ride, but he didn’t. He died for us instead.

2). Love is expensive: show me one act of love that is free, and I’ll show you some land near 114 that’s prime for a catfish farm. Love always seems to have a price. What’s the point of willing the Good for others when it will likely lighten your wallet, cost you a gallon of gas, or force you to spend several minutes of your life doing something charitable. Again, let’s look at Jesus. Was his act of love for us free? Well, OK, free for us! That’s fine. But it cost Jesus his dignity and his life. Expensive, indeed.

3). Love requires us to focus too much on others: it would seem that the basic point of love is to fawn all over other people, wait on them hand and foot, and pretend to be all about their needs and their hurts. It’s all about them, them, them! What about me?! I have my needs and my hurts and my wants and me, me, me…Perfect example of this problem: Jesus tells his little band that if they want to be first they have to serve others! What is that? What kind of logic is that? To be first I have to be last, willing to sacrifice prestige, place, honor, and power in order to SERVE! Jesus does this for us—again—but look at his conclusion. Great for us. Not so great for him.

4). You have to lie when you love: not that lying is a problem when you have to do it, but loving is doubly difficult b/c to keep people liking you you have to tell them what they don’t want to hear. You can’t “love” if you make people uncomfortable or if you say unpleasant things to them. It would seem that charity requires us to lie in order to keep the peace. Being peaceful is more important than speaking the truth. Obviously! Didn’t Jesus say that he came to divide with a sword, to both cut the bonds of sin and to split apart families and friends? Is that what love does when it forces you to tell the truth? Who thinks that’s good? He spoke the truth and ended up dead. Not a good example of peacekeeping.

I’ve given you four good reasons why loving one another is a problem: love is messy and makes you do dumb things; it is expensive; it requires you to focus too much on others; and it makes you lie. All good reasons to forget about love. And this is why Jesus doesn’t just suggest that we love one another or hint at the possibility of loving one another. He commands us to love. Commands. Do it! Love is the greatest commandment b/c our relationship with God depends on it. We cannot understand what God is saying to us through the prophets if we fail to love. And we cannot know what is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, and excellent if we will not love. What’s worse: we cannot know anything of Goodness, we cannot imitate God, we cannot become Christ if we will not love.

It’s command. Not an argument or a suggestion or a caption for a child’s poster. It is a command, an order. And if you will be more than you are, if you will be made perfect in the Father’s love, you will love—Him, us, yourself and you will rejoice in the Lord always b/c He loved you first…and loves you still.

30 October 2006

Blogs, Devils, and Jesus

30th Week OT: Ephesians 4.32-5.8 and Luke 13.10-17
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

When I should be doing just about anything useful and good, I can usually be found reading blogs. Worse still, I can be found carrying on long, tedious debates in the comboxes of blogs! Recently, I got tangled up in a debate that is just beyond stupid. I won’t go into detail; let it suffice to say that it was about the regulation of the liturgy. We weren’t arguing over the nature of God or the best means of achieving holiness. We were fussing about a tiny little point of liturgical etiquette. The equivalent of arguing about whether it is more sinful to steal one dime or two nickels. Sad, I know, but the smaller the stakes the more vicious the game.

Jesus goes to the synagogue and finds there a woman who has been crippled by a dark spirit for eighteen years. He heals her. The synagogue’s leader is outraged, so runs to his blogsite and posts a long, detailed flame on Jesus, quoting scripture, obscure scholars of the Law, popular itinerant prophets, arguing vehemently that Jesus has desecrated the Sabbath by performing an exorcism. The comboxes fill up with “Preach it, brother!” and “The rabbis have spoken and that’s good enough for me” and “We can’t take scripture literally…” and “A recent document from Jerusalem, Keeping the Sabbath Holy, says in chapter nine, paragraph twelve, sentence seven, third dependent clause from the end beginning after the second semicolon…”

Etcetera and ad nauseum until the blogsite crashes and the leader is forced back outside. Jesus looks him in the eye and yells, “Hypocrite!” The leader faints b/c he’s spent the whole weekend on the internet, eating nothing but Nacho Cheese Doodles and drinking low-fat iced mocha frappacinnos. Jesus soldiers on, asking the leader and the crowd: “What better day to free this woman from the bondage of Satan than the Sabbath?” Jesus’ opponents were humbled and the crowd rejoices. His point? Paul says it better than I can: “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving of one another as God has forgiven you in Christ. Be imitators of God…” He says to live in love, to love as Christ loves, to avoid obscenity and silly talk, rather give thanksgiving, live as a breathing testament of gratitude to the Father. We are children of the light not of the darkness. He says to get off the blogsite comboxes and stop arguing about how to fold the altar linens and get out there and do something holy and grateful and kind and forgiving for someone!

I have to remind myself constantly that Jesus didn’t suffer bloody beatings and an ignoble execution so that I can continue to labor under the Law. Of course rules and regulations are an essential part of our human community, but like the sacraments, they are not binding on God. God is not limited to dispensing his grace through the sacraments. Nor is He limited to specific days for healing. Jesus argues that the Sabbath is the perfect day to work a healing miracle. What better way to honor God, seek out rest, and witness to the Father’s power and mercy than to free someone from an oppressive demon? Again and again Jesus has taught us that we aren’t freed from the Law but freed within the Law to love God and love one another. And what can be more perverse than for us to take the greatest commandment, written on the flesh our hearts, and shrink it back into a legal proposition written on stone? A truly sad idolatry.

If you find yourself greedy for the Law, for a regulation or rubric to worship, remember Paul’s words: no idolater has an inheritance in the Kingdom of God. Hell is for Pharisaical nitpickers and combox devils.