18 October 2009

Our crusade of service

Look!  A homily!  Remember those?

29th Sunday OT: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Good old American capitalism thrives on customer service. Our Wal-marts and Krogers and Borders have whole departments devoted to doing nothing else but making sure that customers are 100% satisfied with their shopping experience—free credit, no-questions refunds, managers eager to please. Customer empowerment is all the rage. Want to see how good you have it over there in the USA? Come to Italy and enjoy being ignored by store owners, waiters, bank tellers, and just about anyone who's working in an alleged money-making enterprise. Customer service in Italia rates in attractiveness for most workers somewhere right around plunging the toilet and de-molding the ceiling grout  They don't even bag your groceries for you! In fact, the only money-makers here who don't ignore you are the beggars. And they are impeccably polite. Good customer service is a luxury. We can't say the same thing for Christian service. It's the food and drink of holiness, the bread and wine of putting God's grace to work in the world. Jesus puts it in his typically, mildly ominous way: “. . .whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.” Don't you get the feeling here that he's trying to scare us, to warn us off this whole “follow me” business?

When I do spiritual direction with young men discerning a priestly vocation, one of the first things I try to found out about them is how romantic they are about being a priest, how much of the Bells of St Mary's or Romero Kool-aid have they drunk. Let's face it, you have to be something of a romantic to be a Christian. This whole adventure in holiness we've signed on to is rife with beautiful stories of self-sacrifice, heroic battles against evil, stirring last stands in the face of overwhelming odds, and a Grand Finale to end all grand finales. There's nothing boring or merely pragmatic about following Christ to one's cross. But these dramatic high points often distort the imagination by pushing the more mundane facts of Christian living into the background. There's nothing wrong with being attracted to a priestly vocation because it provides great adventure and excitement, but at some point the dirty work of being a sacrificial servant brings the adventure back down to earth. Yes, there are battles. But someone must bury the dead. Yes, there are moments to issue ringing challenges to our culture's pervasive evil. But someone must muck-in and pay the bills. Yes, celebrating the Mass and preaching are transcendent moments. But someone must go to the ER and comfort the parents of a teenager who has committed suicide. Jesus is warning us, urging us even to work at making sure that the adventure of following him is a crusade of sacrificial service. We must be romantics to stay strong along the Way, but it's being of service to those who need us most that grows and polishes God's grace.

A wise woman I know frets when seminarians in her diocese are sent to Rome for studies. She goes out of her way to beg them not to become “Roman Ruins.” She's afraid that like the sons of Zebedee they will find that being at the center of the Church will be an irresistible temptation to grasp at status and power. She knows too many wide-eyed romantics who leave for Rome for an education in the faith and return to the U.S. years later with a hunger for ecclesial celebrity and episcopal promotion. The humility needed to serve is too often smothered in the folds of cassocks, rich vestments, and expensive altar linens. And though I sympathize with her fears, I remind her that our Lord can use the Devil to dig out our weaknesses by allowing him to tempt us to be great without being of service. But perhaps the more insidious temptation is the one that leads us to desire to be of service without being in Christ.

Jesus says to his disciples, “. . .the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Following Christ along his way to the cross is difficult not because we must serve, not because we must sacrifice for others. The way is dangerous because we must serve as a sacrifice; our sacrifice is to serve. There is no real difficulty in helping others. Anyone can serve meals at a homeless shelter, or visit the elderly in a nursing home. Sacrifice doesn't have to be all that bothersome either. We can give up using our cars once a week for a carpool, or drop our spare change into the hands of a beggar. What's difficult and dangerous is giving ourselves wholly in service to another for the sake of Christ, turning ourselves over to the needs of someone else because we have vowed to become Christ going to his cross. Christ's service to us is the ransom he paid on the cross for our rescue. Knowing us and loving us anyway, he suffered death on the cross—“a death he freely accepted”—and in freely dying for our sake, he not only showed us the way to heaven, he showed us how to be perfect servants as well. He leads the Church by going first. If you will sit at his right hand, you must go first; you must go in sacrificial service, offering your weaknesses for the sins of others so that the Lord's will might be accomplished through you.

As frightening as a promise of death on a cross is, we gather at his altar to be reminded that he has gone before us; he went first so that our way is straight and clear: “So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.”


  1. The Sacrifice of the Mass on earth is meant to represent the worship of God in heaven so I don't have a problem with "rich vestments, and expensive altar linens" and beautiful churches as long as it is God being worshipped and not the priest.

  2. Anonymous4:22 AM


    Your homily hit me like a ton of bricks. Especially paragraph 2. Here I am a seminarian in a religious order, and I think I may well have been trying to avoid the dirty work you point to in paragraph 2. I have a vocation, I don't think there's a doubt, but I sit here and dream daily that I'm going to save the world myself.

    With your writing, I may have just found a key to further discernment of my vocation.

    Thank you

  3. Victoria:

    Nor do I. Abusus not tollit usum. The trouble arises when the trappings themselves are made more important than the God Who is glorified when those items are used correctly. To provide another example (relevant to Sunday's Gospel), the Corporal Works of Mercy can be distorted into the idol of "Peace and Justice", which turns the Church into nothing but a self-congratulatory social services agency.