Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA
I trace the call to priesthood back to 1981 during a high school trip to Mexico. The road I took to the Dominicans and ordination was long, pot-holed, twisted, and plagued by dangerous temptations and even more dangerous choices. Allowing the romance and idealism of youth to overwhelm good sense, I ran that road with my eyes closed and my mouth open. Though never doubting my vocation, I often and intensely resisted God's not-so-gentle prodding toward priesthood. Among the reasons for delaying the decision for 17 years was my obvious unworthiness for the office. There's no need for details, but let's just say that my life before the Dominicans would have made the young Augustine blush and the soldier Ignatius flinch. Very little about who I was back then indicated that God could use me to serve His people as a Dominican friar and priest. I imagine that the tax-collector, Matthew feels much the same way when Jesus comes along and says, “Follow me.” And I imagine that most of you jump a little when Jesus says, “Hey you, sinner! Come on, we've got work to do!” You want to resist. Rattle off your sins. Tell him how unworthy you are. How dumb or inarticulate or shy you are. He knows all that already. My advice: just go. He's not going to stop calling just b/c you won't answer.
One way of looking at the Church is to see her as a collection of those who are called to serve in spite of their obvious unworthiness. The Church is a hospital for the sick not a spa for the healthy. In fact, we're Christians because we're also sinners. Coming to Mass is hardly scandalous behavior even though all you people are sinners! Jesus himself socializes with sinners and gets called out for doing so. What's the big deal? Sick people need healing, so Jesus is going where he's needed. But when Jesus eats with prostitutes and tax-collectors, he's doing more than just scandalizing the self-righteous scribes; he's making himself—a rabbi—ritually unclean. More to the point, Jesus is sacrificing his standing as a ritually clean teacher of the Law so that he might reach those who most need to hear word of his Father's mercy. When the scribes object to his ministry in the messy lives of these sinners, Jesus says, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” What God wants from us is for us to give His mercy the use of our bodies here on earth. Our words, deeds, thoughts—all from each of us. And that's our sacrifice: to set aside our doubts and worries about being worthy of Christ and just follow Christ!
But, Father, I'm not very smart. I'm not in a state of grace. I'm not good with words. People don't like me. I'm too shy. And Jesus answers, using the favorite word of my teenage nieces, “Whatever.” OK. So, you're a dumb, shy, inarticulate and unlikeable sinner. Peter denied even knowing Jesus. Matthew was a traitor to his people by collecting taxes for the Romans. Paul killed Christians as heretics. Judas sold Christ to his enemies. And the whole lot of disciples ran like rabbits and hid when their beloved teacher was executed. So, whatever, dumb, shy, inarticulate, and unlikeable sinner. Welcome to the Church. Now, get to work! That's our sacrifice: give up sinning AND give up using our sins as an excuse not to do what we have been called to do. Jesus was willing to sacrifice his religious standing as a rabbi in order to bring God's word of mercy to the dredges of Judea. Can we find the courage to sacrifice our excuses for not being bodies for God's mercy? Forgiven sinners should be the first to shout to the rafters: we're forgiven, all of us are forgiven!___________________
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