2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Preached at St. Catherine’s in Concrete (8:30am Sat.), Immaculate Heart of Mary in Sedro-Woolley (5:00pm), Sacred Heart in La Conner (9:30am), and St. Charles in Burlington (11:15am)
This last week I took my annual five-day retreat down at the Palisades with thirty other priests of the Archdiocese. The Church requires that every priest take a five-day retreat every year, and I think it is as much for the sake of his people as for his own sake. In that spirit, it seems appropriate this weekend to share with you the fruits of my time away.
But in order to understand what happened at this year’s retreat, you first need to understand the origins of my call to the priesthood.
My vocation started through college campus ministry. I was defending the faith to atheists and secularists, I was evangelizing my friends, I was strengthening my own campus ministry program, and I was driving all over the city of Boston to help strengthen other college ministry programs. I was so alive and on fire for the Lord, filled with a deep desire to preach the Gospel to a broken culture. It was this desire that Jesus used to call me to a life of service in the Church, specifically as a parish priest. Once the Lord put the idea on my heart, I could think of nothing more exciting or more adventurous than going into battle for Jesus on the front lines of parish ministry, where souls literally hang in the balance.
By the end of my time in college, I felt like the author of the first reading: “For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet, until her vindication shines forth like the dawn and her victory like a burning torch.” This is the message that welled up within me that I could not hold in. Do we realize what has been done for us in Jesus Christ? Do we appreciate the incredible gift of our redemption, of the divine life available to us through the sacraments, of the deep and powerful connection we have with the saints in heaven? Do we understand that nothing, nothing at all, is more important than the incarnation, passion, and resurrection? How can we hear the Gospel and be lukewarm about our faith? How is that possible? I had this unquenchable fire in the depth of my soul, and it drove me to priesthood.
And then I hit seminary. Seminary, traditionally, has been a retreat from the world, so all the battles I was fighting, all the effort I was expending preaching the Gospel, all of this was stripped from me. For six years. And it felt like Hell, absolute Hell. It was necessary, for sure, and I was trained very well, learning certain long-term disciplines and practices that are essential for a life-long vocation. But it seemed to contain nothing of my call to the priesthood and felt like nothing more than an unpleasant period that I had to endure.
I think the hardest part for me was that, as I went through seminary and learned more and more about the state of the Church in America today, it became clear just how much of a crisis the faith is in on these shores, and I was stuck on the sidelines doing nothing. By the end of seminary, this realization had mixed with my evangelical zeal to the point that my entire existence became defined by the fact that our modern American society has rejected the Gospel. In my mind, the world, our country, and the Church is on fire and burning down, and I want to yell at the top of my lungs until we begin putting out the flames.
Which makes me feel like Mary in the Gospel. “They have no wine.” In other words, the wedding is ruined, everything is falling apart. And she tells this to Jesus. Jesus, they have no wine. You need to do something about this. I can tell both she and her son were without sin, because her statement has no hint of panic in it, and she perfectly trusts that he will address the situation in an appropriate way. I lack her patience and I lack her trust. Instead, I am constantly turning to Jesus and yelling, “They have no wine!” We have uncatechized children, we have thirteen year-olds rejecting the faith, we have young adults hooking up and cohabitating, we have families falling apart, we have people who have not been inspired by their faith for years, we have a crisis of celibacy and sexual abuse among the clergy. We have a church the feels on the brink of falling apart. Jesus, they have no wine! What are you going to do about it, Lord?!?
And this, ultimately, is why I hate retreats, and struggle even with my daily prayers. To remove myself from the world feels like a literal retreat, a military retreat. Sitting in silence in a chapel, for five days or even for an hour a day, has always felt like a denial of the mission that I feel in my very bones. Jesus, the world is on fire! Why are you making me sit here in silence?
So this year’s retreat saw me yell at the Lord for the same reasons as every year before. I am bored, I am frustrated, I have to limit myself due to circumstances. I do not feel like I am living out the mission I signed up for. In seminary, the limitation was necessary but finite. I knew there would be an end. Now that I am 18 months into parish ministry, I can tell you that end has been a mixed bag.
There are certain aspects of my priestly ministry that I absolutely love, because they are as invigorating as they are impactful. I love teaching the faith, I love working with the youth, I love going over to peoples’ homes and talking about Jesus. I love confessions. I even love parish strategic planning. But I have a lot of other responsibilities that seem less urgent and less useful, like putting new paint on a burning building. And they seem to take up more of my time than the other stuff. Making a tight schedule work. Answering e-mails. Planning liturgies. Making sure we have enough volunteers for this or that ministry. Even saying Mass loses its luster when I have to say the same Mass and preach the same homily four or five times in a weekend. These things are not fun for me, because they look a whole lot like maintenance and not at all like evangelization. And then the cherry on top is that Jesus, through my seminary professors and my archbishop, asks me to sit quietly with him in a chapel for an hour each day. I know this is important. I know how absolutely necessary it is to give Jesus his time. And I won’t stop. But more often than not, my prayer is boring and far from exciting.
So at this retreat, I told Jesus how much I resented him for letting me get so bored, in ministry and in prayer. I told him that I signed up for ministry so that I could go on a crazy adventure with him, like the Apostles did, learning and exploring and being sent out on missions. I told him that I gave my life to preach the Gospel, to fight the flood of evil and secularism, and that I am frustrated with how little I feel that battle is actually part of my life.
I know that these struggles do not make me unique. Most marriages go through the trial of routine, where everything is no longer new, but the love must persist nonetheless. My situation is no different and no more dire. But, ultimately, the purpose of a retreat is not to solve every problem, but simply to be honest and transparent with Jesus, to make sure any building resentment gets expressed to him so that he can begin to deal with it in my heart.
And the Lord did not give me any solutions. Which makes bringing this homily to a close somewhat problematic. But a couple of reflections might suffice.
First, I need to be honest with myself and my parishioners about how completely desperate I feel most of the time. I really do think that everything is on fire, and that belief makes me feel frustrated about anything that is not a radical and sweeping change. And yet, many of you probably think that things are mostly fine, and that radical change is not necessary. And that is okay. It is my job to be in conversation with my parishioners, trying to bridge the gap between where they are at and where I am at. And it would be unfair to you if I preached a “sky is falling” homily every weekend. But the result of all of this is that I am always going to feel like we are moving too slow, and most of you are going to feel like I am pushing too hard, and we will always be in that tension. And knowing that about each other, maybe we can bring that to Jesus and move forward together.
Second, I am going to continue to enable and empower as many parishioners as I can to own and run the ministries of the parish. I often feel frustrated because I am doing a bunch of stuff that I do not really care about, even though it may be an important or necessary parish ministry. I also believe that Jesus takes care of his Church, and that if something is an important or necessary ministry, he has already given our parish someone who is passionate about that ministry. It is my job to help people fall more and more in love with Jesus until these passions reveal themselves and these people are inspired to give their time and talents to the Lord. It is many gifts but the same Spirit. We already have these gifts, we just need to tap into them. Yes, the priest needs to coordinate the efforts of his parishioners, but if the Lord is inspiring you to serve in some way, I am going to find every way I can to let that inspiration run its course. Not only would you likely be doing me a favor, but you would be helping God carry out his plan for our parish.
Finally, and this is the one that will be hardest for me to maintain and not forget, I think it is important for you to hear from your priest about his personal relationship with Jesus. It is so easy for me to teach, or to encourage, or to challenge. But you rarely get to hear about the fact that, for me, Jesus is an active person in my life whom I love. He and I have a continual dialogue. He regularly asks me to do things that I do not enjoy, and I am very often upset with him. But I have given my life to Jesus, and I love him with my entire being, and I have never regretted that.
So this is where I am with Jesus. I hope that, even when it is maddening and frustrating, you, too, can have a deep and profound relationship with Jesus. In the end, nothing else really matters.