19 September 2021

Ask AND receive

25th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


A couple of years ago – after the McCarrick scandal broke – the formators at NDS spent a good deal of time talking to our seminarians about clericalism. We covered both species of clericalism – the pre-VC2 kind (the one where the priest is Lord God King of his parish and never to be questioned) and the post-VC2 kind (where the priest is still Lord God King but tries to pretend that he's just one of the guys). These clericalisms manifest in similar ways: abuse of authority in messing with the liturgy; overemphasizing either the priest's role or the laity's role; trying to clericalize the laity or laicize the clergy; and using the pulpit to push personal agendas. We also covered keeping secrets; the threat of blackmail; careerism, cronyism; the failure to fraternally correct miscreant priests; and the temptations of being put on a pedestal. What do all these sins against priestly life and service have in common? Jesus asks the disciples: What were y'all arguing about?” But they remained silent. “They had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.” Along the Way of Christ there is no time for wondering who's the greatest among us.

NB. The disciples remain silent when Jesus asks them what they were arguing about. They know their discussion is wrong. They know that Jesus is going to rebuke their careerist ambitions. To their credit, they are at least embarrassed and refuse to answer. Unfortunately, silence is part of the problem in both kinds of clericalism. The fear of being cast out for tattling is real. Whistle-blowers become the targets of scorn; they become subjects of questions and rumors. And their brother-priests grow to distrust them. Oftentimes, they end up ministering to the nursing home at St. Bubba's Parish in Alligator Neck, LA. Or they find themselves in a residential treatment facility getting poked and prodded by shrinks and therapists, looking for a diagnosis. So, too often silence wins and the Church suffers. Jesus tells us that ambition, especially ecclesial ambition – which infects the laity as well! – is best countered with child-like wonder and trust, receiving the Father's gifts with open hands, open hearts, and open minds, always willing and able to take in whatever the Lord sends our way. How do we fail at this child-like disposition? James tells us: You ask but do not receive. . .” We ask for His gifts, but we do not receive them.

Why? Why do we ask for graces but fail to receive them? Part of the problem here is that God gives us gifts we didn't ask for. I asked for a promotion and God gave me more responsibility. I asked for an “A” on an exam and God gave me more time to study. I asked God for a more loving spouse and He gave me lots of chances to be loving. Another problem is that we sometimes don't recognize His graces when they come to us. That rare moment of quiet given to us to recollect ourselves. That gesture of goodwill from a quarrelsome co-worker. That chance to practice patience during the afternoon rush hour. Both of these problems – getting what we didn't ask for and failing to recognize a gift when it comes – both of these derive from the same source: ambition in prayer; that is, wanting, needing, desiring out of a sense of entitlement rooted in narcissism. The disciples have ambitions for power in Christ's Kingdom. Priests have ambitions for positions and influence in the Church. Laity have ambitions for recognition and reward in the world. All this ambition clashes with the child-like wonder and trust Jesus tells us is essential to flourishing along the Way: “. . .whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”

So, how do we receive in a way that propels us along the Way? First, we must let go of any notion of what God's grace will look like. Any person or event could be a moment of grace. Since God can bring good from evil, even ostensibly “evil” people and events can be instruments of grace. Second, we must learn to ask for what we truly need not merely what we want. We ask not b/c our Father is ignorant of our needs but b/c in asking we receive. We acknowledge our dependence on His providence and cultivate the good habit of gratitude. Third, we must accept and live-out the truth that we ourselves can be instruments of God's grace to others – if we choose to be. Do I act, speak, think, feel in a way that signals to others that God uses me as a vehicle for his providence? Clericalist priests and clericalized laity signal entitlement and narcissism not the presence of divine gift. Lastly, how do I pray? Do I rattle off a litany of wants? Do I pester God with pet peeves and petty desires? Or do I ask Him to open me up and help me to receive all He has to give me? Am I willing to sincerely pray: “Father, help me to be the least so that I may do your great work in the world”?  

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