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.

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