Sunday, January 23, 2005

The Call Of The First Priests, And The Call Of The Priest Today

(Third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 23, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 4: 12-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of the Year 2005]

Fr. Stephen Rossetti is a Catholic priest and a licensed clinical psychologist. He often speaks at formal gatherings of clergy throughout the United States. A few years ago, he gave a presentation to all the priests of our diocese at our annual pastoral studies’ day in Warwick.

After the terrible sex abuse scandals of 2002, Fr. Rossetti decided to survey priests in 11 different dioceses in order to assess their morale. Given the negative portrayal of the priesthood in the media (especially after the scandals), he expected the worst—he expected to find many priests on the verge of despair. But, much to his surprise, that was not the case. Generally speaking, the results were very positive.

For example, 92% of the 834 priests he surveyed said they either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Overall, I am happy as a priest.” In October of 2002, the Los Angeles Times ran a poll of 1,854 priests (this, interestingly enough, was done right in the midst of the scandals) and their poll yielded a similar result: 91% of the priests said they were satisfied with the “way [their] life as a priest [was] going,” and 90% said they would do it all over again. If they could turn back the hands of time, they would choose once more to respond to God’s grace and serve the Lord in the Catholic priesthood.

“As [Jesus] was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.”

This was the call of the very first priests, as recounted for us in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 4. And here, I believe, we receive an insight as to why priestly morale today is still very high, in spite of the horrible sins committed by a small percentage of unfaithful priests and bishops over the last 50 years. The insight, simply put, is this: the invitation to serve Jesus Christ in the priesthood is both powerful and inspiring!

When Jesus called them that day on the Sea of Galilee, these apostles didn’t fully understand the nature of the summons. What it actually meant to be a “fisher of men” would only become clear to them with the passage of time and with the help of God’s grace. But even at this point—on the day the Lord called them—these 4 men knew they were being asked to follow someone very special and to do something exceedingly extraordinary!

Why else would they have left their families? Why else would they have left their fishing business? Why else would they have made this radical change in their lives?

Obviously they were convinced that Jesus Christ was worth it!

And so is every good priest today!—every good priest, that is, who understands the dignity of the priesthood! He is also convinced that following Christ and proclaiming the gospel and helping to save souls are worth the personal sacrifice! (Now do you see why those survey numbers of Fr. Rossetti and the Los Angeles Times were so positive?)

I should also mention in this context that this is a response I often give to those who criticize the discipline of celibacy for priests in the Latin Rite. I say to them, “Don’t you think Jesus is worth it? He’s the Son of God and the Savior of the world—isn’t he worth giving up marriage and family for?”

By the way, if you think he’s not worth it, then that says an awful lot about your faith (or perhaps I should say, about your lack of faith!).

That’s not to say it’s easy to live a celibate life! Of course, Jesus never said it would be. But having heard the confessions of married people for the last 19 years, I also know that being married and raising children in the modern world are not easy!

The bottom line is this: If God calls you to it, then he will certainly give you the grace to live it. That truth applies both to the priesthood and to marriage.

And he will give you the grace to live your vocation joyfully!

When Peter, Andrew, James and John left everything to follow Christ as his apostles, I definitely don’t think they left with frowns on their faces! They knew they were embarking on a new adventure, and I’m quite certain they were happy and excited about it. They couldn’t wait for it all to begin!

Perhaps one of the reasons for their excitement was that they had already heard about Jesus from some of their friends and relatives. Remember, the Bible doesn’t give us every detail of every event that occurred during our Lord’s earthly ministry; hence, it’s quite possible that these men already knew at least something about Jesus before they met him on their boats that day.

They had probably been told that this Jesus was a powerful rabbi who said and who did some unique and incredible things; consequently, they were thrilled when he invited them to be among his closest followers.
Every dedicated priest throughout history has felt that same enthusiasm and excitement!

And it’s clear from this Gospel reading that Jesus wasted no time in showing them what their future priestly ministry would involve. After we’re told that the 4 men left everything behind, the next line of the text says, “[Jesus] went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.”

Priestly ministry, following the example of Jesus, involves all these elements: teaching, proclaiming the gospel, and, in a certain sense, “curing.” That last point relates in a special way to the sacraments. The sacraments, which are rooted in the priesthood of Christ himself, bring us the “curing” grace of God in various ways. Perhaps we’ve never thought of them in that way before. In baptism, for example, we are “cured” of original sin and made adopted children of God; in the sacrament of Confession we are “cured” of the eternal consequences of our personal sins; in the Eucharist we are “cured” of our spiritual hunger; in the sacrament of Confirmation we are “cured” of fear, and receive the grace to witness to Christ in the world; in the sacrament of Anointing we are “cured” of spiritual—and sometimes even of physical—ailments.

And this priestly activity of “curing” is not only oriented toward life in this world. Ultimately the cures imparted by the priest in his sacramental ministry are designed to get people into heaven! They have an eternal dimension, which is what makes them so important—and so unique.

A good medical doctor brings people physical cures and healings (and for that we should thank God!), but these last only for a time. Even the most gifted doctor eventually loses every one of his patients—because his patients all have mortal bodies, and those bodies die even after the best of medical care.

But a priest is an instrument of Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls, for the salvation of persons! Through the ministry of word and sacrament, a priest prepares human beings for their ETERNAL destiny! As such, his intention in serving his “patients” is to lose none of them! He desires—and he prays—that all those who hear him and receive the sacraments from him will someday end up in God’s eternal and glorious kingdom.

That is the incredible potential of priestly ministry. It’s literally “out of this world.” And that’s why I thank God every day that he called me—unworthy as I am—to be a “fisher of men,” as he called those first apostles 2,000 years ago on the Sea of Galilee.