The Second Sunday of the Year (B)
Diocesan Day of Prayer for Priestly Vocations
The celebrated literary genius and devout Catholic, J.R.R. Tolkien, put these words into the mouth of his illustrious hobbit, Bilbo Baggins: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” It is advice that Bilbo himself did not keep and neither did Frodo, for they found themselves swept up in the story of the Ring of Power.
It is advice that Saint Peter, too, failed to keep, for he found himself swept up in the story of Jesus Christ. He could not have known that leaving everything behind would lead him from Jerusalem to Antioch to Rome; he could not have known the Lord would establish his Church upon his ministry (cf. Luke 5:11; Matthew 16:18). He did not know that that first step, if he let himself be carried away and swept up into the life of the Savior, would bring him to Rome where he would be catching men and where he would shed his blood. “He accepted this surprising call; he let himself be involved in this great adventure: he was generous; he recognized his limits but believed in the one who was calling him and followed the dream of his heart. He said ‘yes,’ a courageous and generous ‘yes,’ and became a disciple of Jesus.” Bilbo’s words are true indeed.
What did Peter see in Jesus that led him to drop everything and follow him? Why did he follow Jesus who, as Pope Benedict says, “did not give him answers but required him to trust”? He may not have heard the answer to his questions, but he knew that the one who boarded his boat, who told him to “put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch, was himself the Answer (Luke 5:4).
What is it that you and I seek? There is one thing that each of us seeks, even if we do not quite know how to express it: we desire the happy life, but we often do not know where or how we will find it. We do not often even know what we mean by the happy life, but we do know what we do not mean.
That day at the Lake of Gennesaret Peter took his first step; he “left everything and followed” Jesus (Luke 5:11). I took my first step after Jesus – not knowing where it would or will yet lead – many years ago. The Lord first began to call me through the two most decisive moments in my life.
The vocational story of every priest is different because the Lord calls men to serve him through the very personal experiences of their lives; no two priests are the same. The Lord continues to call men to his own priesthood so that, as he says through his prophet, “I will appoint over you shepherds after my own heart” (Jeremiah 3:15).
I want to share with you today how the Lord called me to his sacred priesthood, both to encourage those whom he is calling to the priesthood in this parish right now, and to help you support them as well.
When I was about five years old my Mom developed a brain cancer that confined her to a hospital bed in our home. Dad stopped working to care for Mom, my brother and I. Even so, it was a happy childhood and I was carefree like most children.
On the morning of 20 February 1986 my brother and I awoke and got dressed for school as we always did. Something was different, though: Dad was not up and breakfast was not ready for us. I went to his bedroom to wake Dad, but he wasn’t there; apparently, he fell asleep on the couch. I walked over to wake him, tapping him on the shoulder and calling to him. Thinking he must have just been sleeping heavily, I woke Mom and asked her to rouse Dad. She failed, too. We called the ambulance and when they arrived my brother and I were taken outside to wait with the neighbors in the gently falling snow.
When the paramedics came out of the house, one of the two looked at me and said not a word. He simply shook his head and I knew that Dad was dead. My happy and carefree world came crashing down around me.
My brother and I then moved in with Dad’s sister’s family and Mom was placed in a nursing home. We visited her every Sunday after Mass and during the week. On 18 January 1988, as we were playing with Legos in the living room, building a bigger and better castle than the day before, the nursing home called: Mom had just died. At not quite ten years of age I was an orphan and filled with profound pain and sorrow. My life, personality and thought would forever be marked by these two events.
At this tender age, I asked God, “Why me” How could God allow the two most important people in my life to be taken away from me? I never blamed God for their deaths but I demanded an answer.
I slowly found myself praying and in the midst of this prayer I heard him say to me, “It is I. Do not be afraid” (John 6:20). “I am here. I love you.” “I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you,” and come to me he did: through the Scriptures, prayer and the sacraments (John 14:18). With Peter, the Lord gave me no answers but required me to trust.
The words of the Psalmist could easily be my own: “When I called you answered me; you built up strength within me” (Psalm 138:3). I sought the Lord, I cried out for him, and when at last I found him I stayed with him, I rested in him, and I learned from him.
I came to believe ever more strongly that “his grace in me has not been ineffective” (I Corinthians 15:10). As a young boy, I learned all too well the frailty and brevity of life, along with its sufferings. I knew, almost intuitively, that what Saint Paul said is true: “You are not your own. For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore glorify God in your body” (I Corinthians 6:20). I asked the Lord for answers, but found peace instead.
In high school, I began to feel him stirring within my heart, calling me to his service. I heard his voice “in a tiny whispering sound” in the stillness of my heart (I Kings 19:12). I came to realize that his love required me to give it to others; I could not keep it to myself. I heard him calling, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8). Almost subconsciously, I quietly answered, “Here I am; send me” (Isaiah 6:8).
As he called to the Apostles so he called to me, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matthew 4:19). But unlike the Apostles I did not immediately leave everything to follow him. I said, “I am too young” (Jeremiah 1:6) and he responded: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men” (Luke 5:10).
Even so, I thought myself unworthy of so generous a calling; indeed, I am unworthy of it. There were others in my parish more fit for his service, I thought. There were others more popular, more intelligent, more talented, more loving than I, and so I at first declined his invitation, choosing instead to teach history. I could not see why the Lord wanted me, wounded as I was. With Saint Peter, I said to him, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). I did not yet realize that “In Love’s service, only wounded soldiers can serve.”
At this time, I told no one about what the Lord was saying to me, which made even more remarkable what soon happened after: parishioners approached me before, after, and during Mass and told me, “You should think about the priesthood; you’d make a good priest.” I was stunned. Within a matter of weeks, it was not simply a handful of my fellow parishioners saying this to me, but dozens, and the number grew with each passing week as if they, too, were saying to me, “Do not be afraid.”
Again I asked the Lord, “Why me?” “But love knows no 'why'; it is a free gift to which one responds with the gift of self." I knew this to be true. I was left with only one question: Why not me? I had no answer and so I knew that I must give myself to his service.
I decided that my fellow parishioners must see something in me that I did not see and so I took another look at the priesthood and realized that God created me for it and only in following his call would I ever find the happy life.
We see in the call of Peter and of Paul that the Lord called them to a deeper communion with him than he called his other disciples. Before long, Jesus would choose from his disciples twelve men whom he called Apostles. These Apostles were his ambassadors, those who would act in his name and carry on his mission, and their ministry has been passed down through the centuries through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
As we consider the call of the Apostles, we see that the Lord Jesus did not simply call everyone to fulfill his ministry, nor did he call a random few. He chose specific men to fulfill his mission for the forgiveness of sins. The Lord Jesus continues to call certain men to himself, certain men whom he calls to stay with him, to be his ambassadors, his presence, in the world today, and he continues to call them personally, just as he called Isaiah, Peter and Paul. He continues to say to those whom he calls, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will catching men” (Luke 5:10).
Regretfully, too few young men are responding to the call of the Lord with generous and courageous hearts; too many keep their feet, as it were, and will not allow themselves to be caught up and swept away in the life of Christ; too many remain afraid.
The call of the Lord can be stifled and ignored, but it cannot be silenced. If we consider again the fact that each of us wants the happy life, we know, too, that the Lord desires the happy life for each of us. And what is more, he knows what will bring us happiness better than we do, for it is he who made us. If we knew what would bring us lasting happiness we would already have attained when first we recognized it.
My brothers and sisters, we know that the Eucharist is central to our life and faith and that without priests we cannot have the Eucharist. Who will celebrate the Mass for future generations? Who will absolve sins in the Lord’s name? Who will anoint the sick? Who will accompany us on our final journey?
Each of us must redouble our efforts and prayers to encourage young men to follow after Jesus Christ as his priests. Priests do not simply fall out of heaven; they come from within families. Could it be that the Lord is calling your son, your grandson, your nephew, friend or neighbor to the priesthood? If he is, encourage him to respond generously and courageously.
It is true that a priestly life is not always easy, but no life is; even married life has its struggles and hardships. We must always remember that “the Lord’s ways are not easy,” and “we are not made for ease.” We are made, rather, for virtue, for growth in holiness, which always involves a certain amount of difficulty as we die more and more to our desires and passions. For some, holiness is attained through marriage or the single life; for others, holiness is attained through a life of priestly service. In the end, holiness always leads to joy, for it is the will of God for us in Christ Jesus.
The question that all young men must ask is not so much, “What do I want from life,” but “What does not God want from my life; what does God want me to do?” This is the question parents must pose to their children. If the answer is to be one of his priests, then that young man should lose his feet and be swept up in the great adventure of Jesus Christ. He should find in his family and friends all of the support and encouragement he will need to do so. Let us say to them, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” Amen!