Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sermon for Solemn High Mass for Fr. Paul Beach’s 10 Year Anniversary of Priesthood

    It is a great honor of mine to have been asked to give the sermon for this Solemn High Mass, a Mass of Thanksgiving marking the tenth anniversary of the Ordination to the Sacred Order of the Priesthood of my good and dear friend Fr. Paul Beach, our celebrant. Assisting him as Subdeacon is Bro. Edward Olsen of the Oratorians and myself, Deacon Matthew Hardesty. I acknowledge also his brother-priests from the Archdiocese of Louisville and elsewhere who are attending in choir and have come to join in this celebration. And I thank our servers who should be commended for their reverence and fidelity. Today most of all, though, we celebrate the Holy Priesthood, that precious gift which our blessed Lord, Jesus Christ Himself, through the hands of the bishop and the power of the Holy Spirit, has chosen to give to these men, and God-willing to me in 9 short days, as the way to bring about our perfection and salvation. After all, God's will for each and every one of us is the way in which he desires to make us saints, if we have the will to accept it. And for a few chosen men, that way is the Priesthood.

    The epistle and the Gospel for this Holy Mass together both exalt this noble vocation and humble it at the same time. They are both challenging and inspiring. What truly Catholic heart is not enflamed with pride and zeal for his religion upon hearing the words of St. Matthew's Gospel? This indeed is my favorite passage of Scripture. It was a great joy for me to chant today's Gospel, the Good News: "Et ego dico tibi: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam; et portae inferi non praevalebunt adversum eam" (And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it). What hope and security this passage gives us when it seems like, at times, that the powers of hell are pressing upon the Church, our Holy Father, the Priesthood in general, and even upon our own hearts, with ever increasing force. Of these powers, we need not fear: The gates of hell SHALL NOT prevail. They may wound us, the may exploit our weaknesses, but in the final estimation they shall not prevail.

    While this passage speaks primarily of St. Peter and his successors the popes down through the ages to Pope Benedict himself, it, by extension, speaks also of the priesthood and exalts it greatly… for great power is given to the priest to share in the prevalence of Goodness, Truth, and Beauty, to share in the victory over evil. In my early years of discernment, before I entered seminary, it was the awesomeness and power, especially of the Mass and of the Sacrament of Penance, that inspired me most to pursue the Priesthood. How awesome it is to affect another man's soul!... To be concerned for another's eternal salvation and to be able, with, by, and for Christ to actually bring it about! Howe awesome it is – with these two shaking hands, and with this feeble tongue – to make a child a Son of God in Baptism and a soldier for Christ in Confirmation, to absolve one's sins in Reconciliation, bless a couple's marriage in Holy Matrimony, give the strength of the Holy Spirit in Extreme Unction, give myself in Ordination, and most of all to transform mere bread and wine into the Real Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, of Jesus Christ Himself. I thought to myself, "is there a greater vocation than this!?" This is the power of Jesus Christ teaching, sanctifying, and governing his Holy People, age upon age, until the end of time. He has never stopped doing these things. In the men he has called to share in His one Priesthood, he has always and everywhere been bringing about our salvation and the salvation of all the world.

    But, lest a priest think that this power is his own possession, that it springs from his natural abilities… lest he forget that his ministry is only good because Jesus Christ is Good, our Lord humbles Peter in our Gospel today and every priest as well. It is a subtle gesture that could easily be overlooked, but it is there nonetheless, and should be taken seriously. As one to soon be ordained a priest, I say this to myself as well, perhaps most of all. After Peter gave his profound profession of faith in Jesus – "Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God" – Jesus replied, "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven." Before all that Peter was soon to be given Jesus reminded him – and every priest – that he is still a son, a child of his Father in heaven. And as sons we should always remember humility before Him.

    Our epistle gave a similar message: "Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking care of it, not by constraint, but willingly, according to God: not for filthy lucre's sake, but voluntarily: Neither as lording it over the clergy, but being made a pattern of the flock from the heart" (1 Pet 5:2-3). Peter himself this time is warning the shepherds of the local Churches not to misuse their authority grudgingly, greedily, or oppressively. A priest's authority is exalted only insofar as it is ordered to the service of others. It is this great service that is its purpose and its goal. A priest's authority is not for his own gain but rather for the salvation of souls. It is for all those within his reach, Catholic and non-Catholic, so that they may be taught, sanctified, and governed toward eternal life. This means that a priest should be charged with an ever-present and increasing zeal for souls, with charity, generosity, and hospitality, always ready and always willing to serve either by his own person or by God's grace at any moment it is called for. And he doesn't do these things to make himself look exalted in the eyes of the faithful, or his brother priests, or his bishop. He does these because he loves his people with a love that could drive him to give his entire self for them. True love enflames his heart, it does not burn him out. But he does not impose or oppress them. "A bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench" (Isaiah 42:3). The pastor is to shepherd his sheep with a humble firmness, a serenity, and a calmness which evokes trust, peace, confidence, and security among them.

A priest's humility also includes his example. St. Gregory the Great teaches that the pastor of souls "should always give the lead, to show by his example the way to life, so that his flock (who follow the voice and actions of the pastor) are guided more by example than by words; his position obliges him to speak of elevated things, and also to manifest them personally; the word more easily gains access to the hearts of hearers when it carries with it the endorsement of the life of him who when giving instructions assists in their fulfillment by his own example" (Regulae pastoralis Liber, 2, 3). Priestly example and humility are not opposed. His example should never betray his humility. And his humility should never forbid his example. Both should work together in a priest. They are two sides of the same coin.

    Fr. Paul Beach, as much as he has insisted that I train my eye on more fitting priests for the example of the way to life, has been that example to me and to so many others throughout his ten years of priestly ministry. His advice and fraternal correction over the years have helped me a great deal. But, as a testament to his humility, the moments of his witness unbeknownst to him have led me as well. For example: witnessing the joy, and welcome, and happiness he engenders in anyone who spends some leisure time with him… Or watching him, in my timid years of discernment, celebrate Holy Mass with such care and reverence, motivating me to enter seminary… Or the constant signs of generosity he has shown, often at great personal expense, and always spontaneous that brought me a more fulfilling experience of being a seminarian. Today, the day we celebrate his ten years of priestly ministry, the most profound thanks we can give him is not with our applause or our gifts, but with our hearts and our prayers. Today we are reminded to give gratitude to God for the Holy Priesthood, to express to God our thanks for the priests who have led us to Him by the power of His grace and the virtues of humility and good example, and to beg him to allow other young men to join the ranks of so noble a vocation.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Mother's Day Homily, Year A: Word and Sacrament

            Following Easter Sunday, Jesus’ disciples did not have the same joy that we have felt.  After a full season of Lent, intensifying our prayer, offering up things as sacrifices to God, giving more generously of ourselves for others, purifying certain aspects of our lives, we naturally are relieved when Easter finally comes.  All of the grace we need to do those things throughout the year is given to us anew.  The whole Church is filled with great joy.  After subduing our worship and not saying the Gloria at the beginning of Mass or chanting Alleluia throughout Lent, it gives me goosebumps every year when the organ finally bellows the Gloria again at the Easter Vigil.  Grace is always a surprise but at least we have the benefit of 2000 years of Tradition to give us an idea of what to expect.  It was a different story for Jesus’ disciples.
            After Jesus’ Passion and Death his disciples were still unsure of what exactly would happen.  They feared for their lives.  They were sad and had lost hope.  Their Lord had disappeared and they didn’t know why.  Instead of joy, they have confusion and despair.  But Jesus, having risen from the dead, appeared to two of his disciples as they walked to Emmaus.  They were talking about what had happened and debating with each other what it all could mean.  But they did not have the light of faith that would have allowed them to see with their spiritual eyes the deeper meaning of the events outside of Jerusalem and on Mount Calvary.  And this darkness also kept them from being able to recognize the risen Jesus.  So they explained to him what happened as if he was a common passer-by.
            Little did they know that they would receive a very, very special and privileged gift.  This stranger who they did not recognize, our Risen Lord Himself, then took the opportunity as they walked to explain all of salvation history, starting with Moses and the prophets, and how every aspect of his life, from his birth, to his ministry, to his death, and Resurrection was foreshadowed in Scripture.  Can you imagine?!  Having Jesus Christ Himself, the Eternal Word of God, walk with you and explain the Scriptures to you!  What I wouldn’t give to have been an eavesdropper in their conversation!  I’m sure we can all call to mind times when we, like these two disciples, were sad, or without hope, or afraid, or confused and wanted to turn to the Bible but weren’t sure were to go.  Or when we have read a certain passage and could not figure out what it meant.  Who do we have that can explain the Scriptures to us?
            When the two disciples and Jesus arrived in Emmaus they did not want him to keep going, they wanted him to stay with them because finally they were beginning to understand with true Faith, Faith which brought them to a higher level of understanding than their unaided reason was able to take them.  Their hearts which were filled with the darkness of doubt were now filling with light and love.  Their hearts burned within them as Jesus spoke to them on the way and opened the Scriptures for them.  It was the meal that was the climax of their experience with him though.  It was in sharing a meal together that they finally recognized the risen Jesus and knew him for who he really was.  It was in the meal that Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?  He tookblessedbroke…and gave… the same words used in the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves, and more importantly, the same words used at the Last Supper, the first Eucharist.  Starting with the Scriptures and ending with a meal, our Lord gradually brought them to greater and greater Faith and greater and greater knowledge of Him.  Who do we have that can help us to believe in Jesus in the Eucharist?
            One of the things that I like to do when I celebrate Baptisms with young families is to explain how it important it is that they take their duty as Christian parents seriously and work diligently through prayer and teaching to raise their children in our Catholic faith and to guard and protect the priceless graces they receive through the waters of Baptism.  Who do we have that can explain the Scriptures to us?  Who do we have that can help us to believe in Jesus in the Eucharist?  I think today gives us the answer… our mothers.
            As a young deacon, about to be ordained a priest, I have celebrated about a dozen Baptisms and each one has truly been very joyful for me.  And the faith that each set of parents has shown has been commendable.  But sometimes I am a little disappointed when I learn that parents have delayed the Baptism of their child, not because of medical or family troubles, but because they want their child to decide for himself if he wants to be Baptized or they feel like they don’t want to impose a particular faith on their child.  With mothers this is the hardest for me to understand.  From the moment a mother learns she has conceived her child, she naturally begin to plan the future – what type of house will be needed, if her and/or her husband’s job is making enough to give them the security they need, how she will feed, clothe, and nurture the child, what neighborhood the child will be raised in, what family and friends will be available to him, what schools he will go to, etc.  All of these decisions for the child’s natural, physical well-being are decided long before the child has a say.  Why then do some mothers today leave their child’s supernatural life and their eternal well-being up to chance?  Having a neutral attitude with regard to a child’s religious life is in fact not a neutral choice but a negative choice that deprives the child of an essential good.[1]  This good is the aid of a mother who will, from the beginning, nurture not only his natural health, but his spiritual health as well.  A child’s mother is naturally, then, the one he has who can explain the Scriptures to him and to help him to believe in Jesus in the Eucharist.  Who else but a mother can say to her child when he is old enough to receive Communion, “My son, I fed you with milk from my own body so that, at least for a while, you would not be hungry, but here Jesus feeds you with his body so you will never be hungry again.”
            The benefit of becoming a child of God, one of the many gifts of Baptism, is something that I think mothers should give their children as soon as they can and afterwards nurture with all of the feminine genius at their disposal.  The time honored practices of the family rosary or gathering together to read the readings before Mass are simple ways a mother, along with her husband, can gradually raise their children in the faith.  When my three brothers and I were children, for whatever reason, our family didn’t pray the rosary or read the Scriptures together.  But I clearly remember my mom encouraging my dad to come to our rooms and teach us how to pray when he came home tired from a long day’s work.  My mom was and still is a Catholic elementary school teacher.  She may not have sat down and explained the Scriptures to us but she taught us our faith and helped us to understand it when we came home from school.  I remember riding in the car on the way to school, she would rehearse with us the prayers we were learning in religion class.  We said the Act of Contrition over and over until we learned it.
            Today I want to thank and encourage all of the mothers, grandmothers, and godmothers who have been faithful from the very beginning in nurturing the bodies and the souls of their children.  I don’t know if I would be a deacon today, on my way to the priesthood, if it wasn’t for my mother helping me along the way, keeping me on track, and coming to my assistance when I was sad, without hope, afraid, or confused.  But I also want to challenge today the mothers who may not have realized that this was their duty or who haven’t been as faithful to it as they could be.  Today, Mother’s Day, is not a religious holiday, but it can still be one in which the Holy Spirit calls us to be grateful and to thank the Mothers of our parish for all they have done to raise us in the faith.  And it can be an opportunity for us to support our mothers, to reach out to the mothers in our extended families or groups of friends, and help them to be the supportive mothers that they are called to be.
And should you be among those today who are reminded of the loss of your mother, be not afraid.  Your Mother the Church, has always been here for you, always willing to give you the help that you need, especially through the Mass, that most precious gift that she has preserved for 2000 years.  For all of us, through the Mass each and every day our Holy Mother the Church opens up the Scriptures for us and makes Jesus known to us in the breaking of the bread.

[1] Instruction on Infant Baptism, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, October 20, 1980