Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shepherds and Friends

When I meet with couples that are preparing for marriage, I rarely delve into the practical day to day matters that will occupy most of their time. I tend to leave that stuff for the marriage preparation course. I do this for two reasons: 1. There are people far better suited than I am to discuss things like finances, conflict resolution, and balancing work and family. 2. I'm pretty good at talking about the theological and spiritual dimensions of marriage and I figure nobody else is going to talk to them about that stuff. Couples always light up when I begin to explain to them that God has this awesome plan for them and when I teach them what the vows mean and why they take them. All of a sudden, their vocation is something much bigger than the two of them. It is part of a Divine Plan.
St. Augustine

Similarly, when one reads what the Church teaches on who the priest is, you cannot but be amazed. One of my favorite descriptions comes from a document entitled Pastores dabo vobis.  There we read that the priest prolongs the presence of Christ the Good Shepherd in the midst of the flock. That is pretty awesome. I think sometimes we hesitate to speak about the priesthood in that manner because it sounds as though we were congratulating ourselves and puffing ourselves up. Certainly, if we think that we have achieved that status by our owning doing, then we would be boasting. But, like the vocation of marriage, it is the vocation itself that is so magnificent and lofty. The one living it might not be so great, however. When we come to see what our vocation truly is in life, it is a cause of overwhelming gratitude.  Similarly, when we understand what the vocation others are living truly is, we experience gratitude for what God is doing in and through them.

Yesterday, I received a very kind Christmas present from some parishioners of mine.  I was really touched.  But, the best part was reading the inscription on the gift itself.  It read, "and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice."  I don't think any inscription could have moved me more or touched me more deeply. The gift itself was an expression of friendship. The inscription communicated that the friendship is lived within the communion of the Church and that our friendship is undeservedly given from above, ordered toward eternity, and a sign of how the various vocations can encourage one another.

When I instruct those preparing for marriage, I do so with the hope of keeping in front of them the magnificence of their vocation and the privilege of being called by God. The young couple who inscribed those words provided me with a great joy this Christmas. They pointed out the magnificence of my vocation and the privilege I have in being a shepherd.

This Sunday, the Gospel recounts how Elizabeth rejoiced in Mary's vocation to be the Mother of God. As we know, when Mary heard this rejoicing, she immediately went on to glorify God.  When we point out the beauty of one another's vocations and rejoice in them, we lead one another to the source of those vocations, God himself.

I am grateful that God gives me people who love the priesthood, who know the voice of the shepherd, and who follow. Their kindness was expressive both of faith in the priesthood and in the gift of friendship. I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from Augustine's Confessions:

"There were other things done in their company which more completely seized my mind: to talk and to laugh with them; to do friendly acts of service for one another; to read well-written books together; at times to tell jokes and sometimes to be serious; to disagree at times, but without hard feelings, just as a man does with himself; and to keep our many discussions pleasant by the very rarity of such differences; to teach things to the others and to learn from them; to long impatiently for those who were absent, and to receive with joy those joining us.  These and similar expressions, proceeding from the hearts of those who loved and repaid their comrades' love, by way of countenance, tongue, eyes, and a thousand pleasing gestures, were like fuel to set our minds ablaze and to make but one out of many."

Being a priest is a great privilege. 

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