Thursday, April 05, 2012

Priest Of God, What Are You In It For?

(Holy Thursday 2012: This homily was given on April 5, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read John 13: 1-15.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Holy Thursday 2012]

What are you in it for?

On this holy night, when we commemorate the institution of the priesthood and the Holy Eucharist, that’s a very important question for us to focus on—because it’s the question that every ordained priest must answer, sooner or later.

What are you in it for?

Now the answer should be obvious and relatively easy, right?  A priest should be ‘in it’ for Jesus!  He should be ‘in it’—in the priesthood—for the salvation of souls!  He should be ‘in it’ to serve—to ‘wash the feet’ of others.  He should be ‘in it’ to lead people to heaven, by his sacramental ministry, and by his ministry of preaching the holy word of God!

But not every priest is!

Unfortunately, some priests are ‘in it’ for other reasons.

Many of you will recall the story of Fr. Steven Schier, which I told in a homily I gave on Holy Thursday several years ago.

On October 18, 1985, as he was traveling from Wichita, Kansas to his parish in Fredonia, Fr. Scheier was involved in a terrible car accident: a head-on collision with a pickup truck. 

At the moment of impact he was thrown from his vehicle, the entire right side of his scalp was taken off, and he broke his neck at the second cervical vertebrae (which is commonly referred to as the “hangman’s break”).  Doctors at the hospital gave him only a 15% chance of survival.  However, he recovered in record time and was released in early December.

But what’s most noteworthy about Fr. Scheier’s story is the powerful, near-death experience he had immediately after his accident. 

He says that after he was thrown from his car he found himself standing before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ.  And even though he had been well-liked by his parishioners during his 12 years as a priest, his sentence from Jesus was “hell.”  He says that the Lord took him through his entire life, and showed him (among other things) how he had failed in his priestly service: how he had watered down the truth of the Gospel in his preaching and teaching; how he had neglected his prayer life and the condition of his own soul; how he had failed to deny himself and sacrifice himself for others.

And Fr. Scheier says that all he could say to Jesus was, “Yes.  I know.”  He could offer no excuses, because he was in the presence of truth—the Truth!

And that’s the way it was when he heard the final sentence.  He responded, “Yes, Lord, I know.  I know this is what I deserve.”

It was at that moment that he heard a woman’s voice say, “Son, will you please spare his life and his eternal soul?”  The Lord replied, “Mother, he’s been a priest for 12 years for himself and not for me, let him reap the punishment he deserves.”  “But Son,’ she said, ‘if we give him special graces and strengths . . . then let’s see if he bears fruit; if not, your will be done.”

There was very short pause, after which Jesus reportedly said, “Mother, he’s yours.”

Needless to say, Fr. Steven Scheier has been a very different priest since that event in 1985!

“He’s been a priest for 12 years for himself.  Those last two words say it all.  Fr. Steven Scheier was ‘in it’—he was in the priesthood—for his own self-glorification.

And deep down inside he knew it was true—as we all know the truth deep within ourselves.

Thankfully, he was given the chance to get ‘in it’ for different reasons—the right ones!

Self-glorification is just one possible bad reason to enter the priesthood.

But it’s definitely not the only one!

Some might do it for power (after all, when you become a pastor you do get to be ‘the boss’—or at least you get to think you’re the boss!).  Some might do it for financial gain (no, we priests don’t make lots of money, but our needs are taken care of quite nicely, thank you very much). 

Some might do it for the good education you receive in preparation for priestly ministry.  Some might do it for affirmation, or for fame—or because they want to be bishops someday.

Some might enter the priesthood to try to change it: to refashion it and to refashion the Church according to their own personal ideas and preferences.

After the scandals of 2002, it became clear that a few men have even entered the priesthood over the years for the most despicable of reasons: to have access to children.

One interesting question to ask on Holy Thursday night is: Why did Judas do it?  Why did Judas say yes to the call of Jesus to be his apostle and eventually one of his first priests?

Was it to betray our Lord when the right opportunity finally presented itself?  Was it to undermine Jesus’ work from within (after all, enemies ‘on the inside’ often do far more damage than enemies ‘on the outside’)?  Was it for financial gain?  Was it because he thought Jesus would someday make him important and famous and powerful on earth?

We don’t know for sure.  Perhaps he started off with good intentions.  But regardless of how he began, we know how he ended up.

He ended up ‘in it’ for the worst of reasons!

I think there’s a warning there for every priest.

But it wasn’t only Judas who had to struggle with less-than-noble motives for following Jesus.  How about James and John?  We’re told that at one point during our Lord’s ministry they came up to him and boldly requested ‘the best seats in the house,’ so to speak, in the kingdom of heaven!  They said, “Teacher, see to it that we sit, one at your right and the other at your left, when you come into your glory.”

Was that the real reason why they were ‘in it’?

And then we have the first pope, Peter, who said to Jesus at one point, “We have put everything aside to follow you.  What can we expect from it?”

Was he ‘in it’ only for what he, personally, would get out of it?

Well, thankfully, James, John, Peter, and all the other apostles (with the exception of Judas) ended up being ‘in it’ for the right reasons, for the best of reasons: for Jesus and for the salvation of souls.

But early on it does seem that their motives were somewhat mixed.

This is why, whenever we talk about the priesthood, we need to focus our attention, first and foremost, on Jesus himself.

It is the priesthood of Jesus Christ that we ordained priests share in—and Jesus was the Great High Priest, the Perfect Priest, who was ALWAYS ‘in it’ for the right reasons—from the very beginning!

Think, for example, of how Satan tempted him after his 40 day fast in the desert:

“Jesus, I know you’re ‘in this’ to save the world and those pesky little human creatures that you love.  But I can show you a much better way.  Why don’t you get ‘in it’ for fame (throw yourself down from the temple; you’ll be famous!); why don’t you get ‘in it’ for pleasure (change those stones to bread and satisfy your hunger!); why don’t you get ‘in it’ for power (I can help you run every country on earth; I have the power)?”

Those temptations were all attempts to try to get Jesus to change the mission the Father had given him: the mission to offer himself in sacrifice for the sins of the world.

They were temptations, in other words, against his priesthood!

Jesus resisted.  He always resisted—even in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night before he died.

He knew what he was ‘in it’ for, and he never wavered in his commitment.

Not for a second.

Pray, my brothers and sisters, for me and for all priests.  Pray that we will be more like Jesus, the Great—and the Perfect—High Priest.

Pray in a special way for those who are currently ‘in it’ for the wrong reasons.

That’s the best thing you can do for your priests, but it’s also the best thing you can do for yourselves, because when your priests are ‘in it’ for the right reasons—for Jesus and for the salvation of souls—you all benefit.

And you benefit eternally!