Sunday, September 30, 2012

Priesthood is about Loving Those in the Pews and Those Not in the Pews

Occasionally I go to lunch at a restaurant in town.  For the most part, the restaurant is set up like a bar but most guys who eat there are on their lunch break so rarely is somebody drinking alcohol.  Sometimes, when I show up, I might be on my day off and not wearing clerics.  But since it is only a short distance from the parish, pretty much everybody knows me.  But, I always get a kick out of the fact that one of the owners--when he sees me arrive--starts announcing, "Hi Fr. Barnes!  How are you Fr. Barnes?  What can I get you Fr. Barnes?"  He does this in some hope that all of the postmen, policemen, city workers, and tradesmen who are sitting at the bar might take note that they should guard their language because the priest has arrived.  Sometimes his announcement has an effect.  Sometimes, it doesn't.  No matter.

One of the things that I've enjoyed as a parish priest is being a priest not only in the parish church but also out among the people.  Sometimes on a Sunday night--if I don't go to youth group--I might stop into a restaurant down the street that serves a tremendous variety of small brews.  I know all of the waitstaff and some of the customers.  We might talk about sports, church, beer, or about what somebody does for a living.  There's something easy and natural about the whole conversation.  If I were a betting man, I'd say that in the place that I go for lunch or in the place that I go for an occasional beer and burger, some of the folks there have considerable differences of opinion with the Catholic Church.  I can't be certain of that, but the odds would be pretty good. 

But, there is something really neat about being a parish priest in these places.  They know who I am.  And, they are always really kind and respectful towards me.  I am really treated well and receptively by all of them.  And in those places, they get to meet a priest in a different circumstance than they might otherwise meet him.  Actually, for some, they might never meet a priest.  And, I also benefit.  I encounter people in their everyday lives.  Regular, normal, everyday people, doing an everyday, normal, regular thing.  One of the other things that I appreciate about it is that I encounter a considerable amount of natural goodness.  Sometimes that natural goodness is a kind word, the offer of a lending hand, or sometimes even a discount!

This week, not only in restaurants but in several other encounters, I met some really nice people who rarely--and sometimes never--come to Mass.  Some are not Catholics.  Some are fallen away Catholics.  They were all nice people.  In some way, because I am the priest here, I might be their only real identifiable contact with the Church.  That's kind of a big privilege.  I sense that our encounters are for them a true encounter with the Church.  For me, those encounters are really beautiful because they put me in contact with the world that is somewhat beyond my everyday experience.  I think something interesting happens in these exchanges.  It's like two worlds meet and discover that they are not quite so far away from one another.  It's as though the priest represents the supernatural order and by having a micro brew, shows that the supernatural order embraces the natural goods of this world.  And, the folks who sit around and happily converse with the priest begin to see that all of the natural goodness that they love and enjoy is not crushed by the supernatural life but is rather directed toward it and fulfilled by it.  And I learn from them.  I learn a lot from them and I appreciate the various ways that goodness is present in their lives.  I learn from them something about how better to preach the Word and how to understand better the culture to which I am called to preach.

This week, I met a contractor who was working nearby.  He mentioned he'd love to climb into the tower of our church.  I changed into some jeans and we went up to the tower--which is a bit of a complicated adventure.  He took pictures so that he could show his wife went he went home.  In that moment, in a very simple way, I felt as though God was doing something there.  We didn't talk about his spiritual life or about his relationship with the Church.  But, almost instantaneously, we struck up a friendship.  The Church is built through such friendships.  What a great privilege I have.

As I said, I met several people this week--in a host of circumstances--who probably are not frequently found in the pews of Church.  I hope that our encounters will lead them in that direction.  But in the meantime, I am grateful that Jesus allows me the awesome privilege of being a priest not only to the people who come to Mass, but also to the many people who normally wouldn't think about the Church, who might despise what they think the Church is, or who are intrigued by the Church.  I love the people I see on Sundays at Mass.  I really love them.  But, the longer I'm a priest, I find myself also loving with a more fervent intensity all of the other people that the Lord puts in my path.  They might be the person I run into at the barber shop, the restaurant, walking my dog, or at the supermarket.  Some of them, I meet only once.  Some of them I see repeatedly.  All of them, I love with the heart of a shepherd.

Priesthood is a beautiful gift.

The Good News About Hell

As pastor of two parishes that include two churches, two school buildings, two rectories, a huge convent building, and a garage, I receive a lot of reports about leaking pipes, broken kneelers, alarms, peeling paint, plaster, furnaces, radiators, lawns, stone, wood, toilets, electrical etc.  And, when somebody tells me about something that they discovered broken, I almost always get immediately annoyed with the person.  I know that's not the right response.  But that's what happens.  It's like the leaking roof didn't exist until this person came and told me about it.  If only they hadn't told me about it, then it would not really be leaking.  I know, it makes no sense.  But I don't always make sense.

Today, however, was payback for me.  I was put in the place of one having to mention some difficult news.  It concerned Hell and sin and scandal.  If you think telling me about a leaking roof provokes an ill feeling from me, try telling people about sin, scandal, and Hell!  It's really not on the top ten chart of what most priests want to talk about it, but there it was, plain as day in the Gospel today.  Now, truth to be told, some people LOVE when the priest talks about Hell!  I never quite know how to react to such glee at the mention of eternal damnation.  But, for most of us, thoughts of Hell provoke a more sobering response.

I presume that the people who tell me that the roof is leaking or that a light bulb is out or that the radiator is leaking do so because they want to help.  I don't think that their intention is to provoke that ill-feeling that I get when I receive that news.  They see that there is a way to fix the problem and the first step is to acknowledge the problem.  Similarly, Jesus points out to us today that we should avoid sin and that we should avoid leading others to sin.  In some ways, I suppose he is trying to provoke in all of us an ill-feeling so that we might acknowledge the problem and then do something to fix it.  Sin and scandal are real problems, but Jesus is mentioning it so that we can fix it.  Sin and scandal can indeed lead to Hell.  But, Jesus came to rescue sinners.  He's the solution.

As I read, prayed, and considered the Gospel today (Mark 9:38-48), it made me a little uncomfortable.  He said that there may be things that I need to cut out of my life in order to follow him.  I think today's Gospel ought to make everyone who hears it a little uncomfortable. It ought to give all of us that ill-feeling.  Because all of us probably have things in our life that we know we should do away with in order not to be put in the proximate occasion of sin.  If we cut these things out of our life, they would make us less susceptible to sin.  For one person, it might be that she needs to quit the soccer league that meets on Sunday mornings.  For another, it might mean that he needs to put a filter on his computer.  For another person it might mean that he needs to stop spending time with a particular person.  For all of these persons--and for every person--cutting things out of our life can be somewhat painful.  But, the surgery is necessary if we are to be serious about avoiding sin in the future.  

Additionally, the Lord speaks about not causing scandal.  Occasionally I watch this show on television about guys who travel around the country buying all sorts of junk.  In one episode, they found a guy who collects millstones.  Although I've heard the millstone mentioned in the Gospel, I've never really given much thought to what one looks like.  They're huge and heavy.  It gave me a different perspective on the Lord's command that it would be better for one to have millstone tied around his neck and cast into the sea than to cause scandal to one of the least ones.  We are all sinners.  But, leading others into sin is serious indeed.

Educating young people to reject the truths of the Gospel, the truths about marriage, the truths about the value of human life etc is most definitely a serious cause of scandal.  It is one thing to put our own soul in jeopardy, but to put another person's soul in jeopardy is of a whole different order.  To teach contrary to the Faith and to lead souls away from God is something that Jesus speaks quite strongly about in today's Gospel.  Don't believe me?  Look at the millstone to which he refers.  Imagine having this tied around your neck.  Kind of makes me a little nervous, you know?

Sometimes, when people teach young people to disagree with the Church's teachings on the importance of Mass, the Sacrament of Penance, marriage, sex, abortion, assisted suicide, contraception etc, they do so casually and without much thought.  But those persons are causing scandal by leading that young person (or any person) away from Christ and towards sin.  Perhaps we should all have a millstone in our homes and churches to remind us of our serious obligation not to cause scandal. 

In today's Gospel, Jesus warns us about giving bad example to others.  But, he also commended that we promote and encourage the good example of others wherever we see it.  Today, at the 10:30 Mass in my parish, there had to be 600-700 people.  There were tons of young college students from local parishes who were given rides by other parishioners.  Looking out and seeing so many people was a great encouragement for me.  The example of people following Christ is powerful indeed.  Without knowing it, all of those people who got up on a rainy Sunday morning and came to Mass provided me with a great example and strengthened me in my own Christian life. 

In the psalm today, we prayed, "From hidden faults acquit me."  By mentioning sin, scandal, and Hell, the Gospel produces in us that sickly feeling that something is not quite perfect in us.  Jesus' words perhaps caused us to recognize a fault that had before been hidden from our view.  But the light of the Gospel has now shone on this darkness within us.  The desired result is not simply to be left with feeling sad because of our weakness.  The desired result is that this light of the Gospel will illumine our path and turn us away from darkness and lead us to the joy of heaven.  Sin, scandal, Hell . . . they leave you feeling kind of downcast.  It would be nice if they didn't exist.  But just because we might not think about them, doesn't mean that they don't exist.  It's better to know.  But, it is only better to know because we also know that there is a way to avoid all three.  That way is Jesus Christ and He loves us and He is our Savior.  Talk of Hell is only worthwhile because there is a Heaven and if we follow our Lord, He will bring us safely there.  The good news about Hell is that we don't have to go there!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Are You a Lost Sheep? The Shepherd is Looking for You

Five times a day, priests are required to pray the Liturgy of the Hours.  One of the those hours is referred to as the Office of Readings (or Vigils) and--in addition to several psalms and a lengthy reading from Scripture--there is often a reading from one of the early Church Fathers.  For the past couple of weeks, we have been reading through a beautiful sermon by St. Augustine concerning the life of pastors.  At great length he talks about all of the ways that pastors can harm the sheep of the flock.  He urges pastors not to live wicked lives, to seek worldly honor and praise, to give bad example to the flock, or to provide quick, easy, but false assurances to the sheep.  This sermon from Augustine is read by those of us who are pastors every year because we all need to be reminded of these things every year.  

Augustine not only reminds us priests about what we should avoid, but he also reminds us what we are supposed to be about.  We are to be shepherds in Christ.  It is a privilege to be a pastor in the life of the Church because the priest makes present in the midst of his flock, Christ the Good Shepherd.  This is a beautiful task, but it is also a consequential task that requires continuous formation.  It is easy for pastors of souls to go off the rails.  That is why the Church gives us Augustine's sermon every year.  The pastor of today--although united to Christ the Good Shepherd by virtue of ordination--must continually draw closer to Christ and be conformed to the heart of Christ.  Whenever I read this sermon (and I suspect other priests are in the same boat), I squirm quite a bit.  Augustine says that even the strong sheep who sees the shepherd living wickedly might say, "If my pastor lives like that, why should I not live like him?"  Thus, Augustine concludes, the pastor becomes a murderer of the sheep.  Ouch!

This time around as I've read Augustine's sermon, I have found myself returning to Augustine's commentary on Ezekiel's prophesy wherein he says, "The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought."  One of the benefits of pastors having stability of office is that they come to know their sheep.  They also come to know who has disappeared from the flock.  When you have a large congregation (I have two parishes), it might take a while, but you all of a sudden recall that "Joe" isn't around anymore or that couple who used to come once or twice a month has dropped out of sight.  You also sometimes have a good sense of why they are not coming.

Now, some people stopped coming to church because they are upset about the past scandals of priests.  Some probably aren't coming to church because I or some other priest said or did something to offend them.  Some aren't coming because it is too challenging for them to hear that something is objectively sinful.  Some aren't coming because they are lazy.  Some aren't coming because they are obstinate.  Some aren't coming because their son has same-sex attraction and they want the Church to go along with the redefinition of marriage.  Some aren't coming because somebody treated them poorly and they were hurt.  Some aren't coming because they misunderstand Church teaching and think that they aren't welcome.  Some aren't coming because some past sin of theirs seems an insurmountable obstacle.  I'm sure there's a lot of other reasons too.

Augustine basically doesn't care what the reason is.  He just says that shepherds are supposed to go and recall the straying and seek out the lost.  Some folks who are away from the Church really desire to be invited back.  I've also experienced some people who are bitterly angry because suggesting that they return to Mass--no matter how well and kindly you might phrase it--sounds to them as though you are accusing them of doing something wrong.  And, in some sense, we are.  If coming to Mass wasn't better than not going to Mass, then we wouldn't be asking them!  Now, many people know that they should go to Mass, but they just don't.  But, they are not offended by suggesting that they should.  In fact, there are some people whom I simply say "hello" to on the street and they launch into a sidewalk confession on how they're really going to get back soon!  But others, if I sent flowers to their home and said, "We really miss you," they'd be upset and consider such an outreach as an attack on their person.  Augustine--writing in the 300's!--knew already that some might react this way.  Let me quote Augustine at some length here:

"In one way or another, we go on living between the hands of robbers and the teeth of raging wolves, and in light of these present dangers we ask your prayers.  The sheep moreover are insolent.  The shepherd seeks out the straying sheep, but because they have wandered away and are lost they say that they are not ours.  'Why do you want us?  Why do you seek us?' they ask, as if their straying and being lost were not the very reason for our wanting them and seeking them out.  'If I am straying,' he says, 'if I am lost, why do want me?'  You are straying, that is why I wish to recall you.  You have been lost, I wish to find you.  'But, I wish to stray,' he says; 'I wish to be lost.'

"So you wish to stray and be lost?  How much better that I do not also wish this.  Certainly, I dare say, I am unwelcome.  But I listen to the Apostle who says: 'Preach the word; insist upon it, welcome and unwelcome.'  Welcome to whom?  Unwelcome to whom?  By all means, welcome to those who desire it and unwelcome to those who do not.  However unwelcome, I dare to say: 'You wish to stray, you wish to be lost; but I do not want this.'  For the One whom I fear does not wish this.  And should I wish it, consider his words of reproach: 'The straying sheep you have not recalled; the lost sheep you have not sought.'  Shall I fear you rather than him? 'Remember, we must all present ourselves before the judgment seat of Christ.'

I shall recall the straying; I shall seek the lost.  Whether they wish it or not, I shall do it.  And should the brambles of the forests tear at me when I seek them, I shall force myself through all straits; I shall pull down all hedges.  So far as the God whom I fear grants me the strength, I shall search everywhere.  I shall recall the straying; I shall seek after those on the verge of being lost.  If you do not want me to suffer, do not stray, do not become lost.  It is not enough that I lament your straying and loss.  No, I fear that in neglecting you, I shall also kill what is strong.  Consider the passage that follows: 'And what was strong you have destroyed.'  Should I neglect the straying and lost, the strong one will also take delight in straying and in being lost.'"
Part of the reason I began this blog is to provide some insight into what the priesthood is from the experience of a parish priest.  In so many ways, the priesthood is about the Heart of Christ.  Christ allows the priest to share mysteriously and beautifully in His Shepherd's Heart.  When one of the sheep is gone from the flock, the priest isn't mad or trying to browbeat the person back to Mass.  Jesus allows the priest to experience in his own heart the sorrow that Christ himself has that one of his members has gone astray.  The priest experiences in his own heart the existential drama that is taking place between Christ and the lost sheep.  In a sense, the priest mediates this drama by being the one whom Christ uses as his instrument.

When I think about the parishioners who have gone astray and are lost; when I think of the young people I've met over the years who were once ardent in the Faith but have gone astray; when I think of the friends on Facebook and other readers of this blog who have wandered away, I (and all of their shepherds) do so not with contempt, derision, or with some sense of superiority.  Christ the Good Shepherd looks upon these stray sheep with love and with concern.  The priest--the pastor, the shepherd--makes Christ's pastoral love for the sheep present here and now.  So, if you've managed to read through this very lengthy post and if you happen to be someone who has gone astray--no matter what the reason--let me say that Jesus, the Good Shepherd is calling you back to the flock.  Do not stray or be lost any longer. There is a mysterious drama that takes place between Christ, the Good Shepherd and the lost sheep.  The priest's voice, heart, hands--his total person--is placed at the service of Christ so that the lost sheep can be found.  So, I hope that this post clears away--virtually--some of the brambles and hedges and brings some lost sheep home.

"Hear the voice of the shepherd, lest you wander about in the mist.  Gather at the mountain of holy scripture.  There, are the things that will delight your hearts; there, you will find nothing poisonous, nothing hostile; there the pastures are most plentiful.  There you will be healthy sheep . . . that is the place where [you] will rest, where [you] will say: 'I am happy.'"

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Pastoral Planning: Build on the Rock of an Encounter or Don't Bother Building

One of the things I love about Pope Benedict XVI is his capacity to take complicated questions and provide a penetrating analysis that is easily understood by those of us who have about 1/10 of his intelligence.  Additionally, Pope Benedict is never afraid to swim against the cultural current--whether that be the culture of the world or the culture of particular ecclesiastical structures.  His Year of Faith is one such example of this.

Throughout the United States, dioceses are confronted with the reality that they have fewer Catholics, fewer Catholics attending Masses, fewer priests, fewer Catholic Schools, and a lot less money to pay for things.  It is a serious and grave situation.  There is undoubtedly a need for a better allocation of resources and a more prudent us of money.  We have these huge structures but their weight rests upon stilts that cannot support them.  But, the present culture in many ecclesiastical structures is to depend solely upon reorganization, restructuring, and adding new bureaucracies. 

This morning I read a quote from Pope Benedict XVI to the bishops of France during their recent visit to Rome.  Here is what he said:

Solving the pastoral problems that present themselves in your dioceses must never limit itself to organizational questions, however important these may be. This [approach] risks placing an emphasis on seeking efficiency through a sort of 'bureaucratization of pastoral care,' focused on structures, organizations and programs, ones which can become 'self-referential,' at the exclusive use of the members of those structures. These would have scarce impact on the life of Christians who are distanced from regular practice [of the faith]. Instead, evangelization requires starting from the encounter with the Lord, within a dialogue rooted in prayer, which then concentrates on the witness of giving itself toward the end of helping the people of our time to recognize and discover anew the signs of the presence of God.
–Pope Benedict XVI
Ad Limina Address to the Bishops of Western France
Castel Gandolfo
21 September 2012

I think we have to take his words seriously and adopt the path that he has marked out for us.  The root problem confronting us is not structural.  The root problem  is a lack of Faith.  This is why I am delighted that in the midst of pastoral planning in my own Archdiocese of Boston, the Holy Father has called for the Year of Faith.  In this way, we will be confronted daily with the fact that reorganization alone is not sufficient.  This is not to disparage attempts to reorganize, but it is to say that reorganization cannot be seen as the fundamental issue.  The reason we are in the mess we are in is because of a lack of Faith.

I have already been involved in Pastoral Planning in my own parishes quite a bit.  I can see already what the Holy Father means about how focusing upon the "bureaucratization of pastoral care" can become self-referential.  The goal cannot be more committees where we go around congratulating ourselves for having more committees.  God save and preserve us from that!  The goal needs to be evangelization.  And evangelization needs to be about Faith.  Strong parishes are parishes where Faith is strong, the Gospel is preached, the Liturgy is celebrated faithfully and nobly, and where people are growing in their knowledge and love of God.  Evangelization has to be about Jesus Christ and Faith.

Again, this is not to suggest that bureaucratic adjustments are pointless.  But, they are pointless if they are all we do.  There is a subtle temptation that comes along with bureaucratic solutions and that is to rely upon them rather than upon the Gospel.  What ails the Church right now is not primarily a poor organization.  The primary affliction is a tepid faith and a lack of public witnesses to the Faith.  We need to rely upon the Gospel.  If we build a pastoral plan on the Gospel, then we are building on solid rock.  If we build upon anything else, we are building upon sand.

The Gospels show us Jesus sending out his disciples and telling them to bring nothing along with them on the journey.  Our pastoral plan must always be the Gospel and the Gospel alone.  Any other plan must always be seen as a means to proclaiming the Gospel and not as an end in itself.  To ignore this is to put ourselves in even greater danger.  This is why the Pope has called for the Year of Faith.  We need to proclaim the Gospel again in all of its fullness.

I think there is a fear when it comes to trusting the Gospel.  For quite some time now, we have been capitulating on all sorts of issues because we are afraid to let the Gospel be our plan.  We are afraid that the Gospel won't be sufficient.  And, the more we allow other types of mentalities to overrule the rule of faith, the more the Church suffers decreasing numbers and decreasing influence in the culture.  We should rather preach the Gospel and die poor than to put a bushel basket over our lamp and succumb to the temptation to rely upon something other than the light of Truth.

The reason there are empty churches, Catholics who oppose Gospel teachings, and a general decline in Catholic life is not because we have too few committees.  We have too little Faith.  That's the real diagnosis.  And, there is some cowardice on the part of a lot of us.  We are afraid to preach the full Gospel because we are afraid the local politician might pull our building permits if we upset him, the wealthy donor might pull his financial support if we say his position on abortion is contrary to the Gospel, and the whole parish might not put as much in the collection basket if we turn the Liturgy from being centered around the priest and the congregation to being centered around God.  When our pastoral plan is something other than the Gospel, we become paralyzed.  Only the Gospel makes the Church free to live in the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

Pope Benedict XVI has given us the pastoral plan for the future.  He has turned our attention to Jesus Christ and Faith in Him.  The primary problem is not buildings, staffing, money, or structures.  The primary problem--and it is a big problem--is that Faith is weak.  We need to turn again to Jesus and put our entire life in His hands.  We need to come to know and love Jesus Christ.  Faith has two acts proper to it.  The first is to believe.  The second is to confess.  If we deepen our faith, that necessarily means that we will be more ardent confessors of the Faith.  The New Evangelization is about Catholics proclaiming the Gospel to others.  In order to proclaim that Gospel, we first have to believe it. 

I have no idea whether the pastoral plan adopted in my own Archdiocese will work or not.  No one knows the answer to that.  I certainly hope that it does work, but in order for it to work, I think it has to start out from a genuine faith and from a personal encounter with the person of Jesus Christ.  The only way it will work is for it to be within the context of the Year of Faith and the New Evangelization.  It would be an unmitigated disaster if we just ploughed ahead with bureaucratic methods without reference to the Faith.  Let me say it again: We need Faith!  Why don't we have vocations?  Why are Catholics not having children?  Why are churches empty?  Why is their widespread ignorance about the Church's teachings?  Why do many Catholics not go to confession?  Why do students graduate from Catholic schools and universities and stop going to Mass?  What explains these rapidly declining orders of religious men and women that will soon disappear but who are charging headlong into false teaching?  The problem is Faith.

Pope Benedict XVI is calling all of us to turn to Christ and learn from Him.  He is calling us to grow in Faith and once again be overwhelmed by the encounter with Christ.  He is calling us to draw others into this encounter.  If a pastoral plan draws us to Christ and others to Christ, then it is a good plan.  But, we have to be very cautious not to spend all of our time building self-congratulating structures that make us feel good because "at least we are doing something."  All of our reorganization, restructuring, cost-saving, etc has to be accompanied by a radical return to the Faith.  When the Son of Man returns, will He find Faith in Beverly, Boston, France, and Italy?  That's the real question that we all need to address and the Pope has given us the Year of Faith to do just that.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Encourage One Another

St. Barnabas, "Son of Encouragement"
The longer I've been a pastor, the more I've appreciated the writings of St. Paul.  We live at a moment in history when there is a strong temptation to turn priests into business executives and human resources experts.  I'm not dismissing all of the great things that other professions bring to the life of the Church or the benefits of having priests who might understand some of these realities well.  Having a priest who knows a little about cooking, plumbing, finances, human resources etc is a good thing.  But, all of these things added together do not make a pastor.  A pastor is not one who knows all of these things inside and out.  A man could know how to be a good listener, a clever businessman, a knowledgeable tradesman, a crackerjack human resources expert, a communications genius, and an efficient facilitator of meetings and still be a terrible pastor. 

St. Paul and his writings are a course in themselves on how to be a shepherd.  In those letters, we discover the depths of Paul's love for his communities.  We also see in them a man who is unafraid to challenge, correct, and teach.  When a pastor loves his people, then he shouldn't be afraid to correct them, to teach them, and to challenge them.  These things are an expression of his love; of his shepherd's heart.  That doesn't mean "yell," but it does mean teaching with conviction.  Not correcting, teaching, and challenging has left many parishes in a state of disarray.  Recently, an Anglican minister that I knew said that they used to say, "Be a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional."  That's a pretty good expression.  In the pulpit we encourage in one way and in the confessional we encourage in a different way.

In the Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul encouraged and he instructed the Thessalonians that they too should encourage one another.  "Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up" (1Thes 5:11).  There is a temptation at times for pastors to encourage indiscriminately.  "Everything is wonderful."  But, true encouragement is related to truth.  A person who is living in holiness and truth ought to be encouraged toward greater holiness and truth.  The person who is not living a holy life or living in the truth ought to be encouraged to do so.  Real encouragement might mean to encourage somebody to change. 

Frankly, some parishes and religious orders have been encouraged right out of business.  Even though they were heading completely down the wrong path, shepherds figured it was their first duty to smile and applaud.  So, when the Liturgy became nutty, the shepherds just smiled and said what a good job they were doing.  When the music became banal, people were encouraged to keep ploughing down the path of least resistance.  It's almost been with reckless abandon that some parishes and religious communities have hurled themselves headlong into proven disastrous consequences.  I'm not suggesting that the people were ill-intentioned.  But, they were ill-served by their shepherds.  When parishes and religious communities are drifting away from the Sacraments, the moral teachings of the Church, and from Liturgical norms, gentle correction is the right course of action--not effusive fawning. 

But, there is also a great need for pastors to encourage the good things that are present in the life of a parish.  The person who is struggling with sin but who confesses their sin over and over again?  Encouragement.  The person who is struggling to understand Church teachings but keeps asking questions?  Encouragement.  The person whose kids drive her crazy during Mass and she feels like everyone is staring at her?  Encouragement. The person who knows that he should forgive the person who offended him, but is struggling to do so?  Encouragement.  The person who is struggling to be chaste?  Encouragement.  The person who has doubts?  Encouragement.  The people in difficult marriages or with difficult children?  Encouragement.  The person who shows up to Mass irregularly?  Encouragement.  The person who agonizes over past sins?  Encouragement.

I often like to encourage the people who come to the Sunday evening Mass.  You can tell that some of them (not all, but some) thought about skipping Mass today, but at the last minute they came.  They need to be encouraged.  When I see couples that I'm preparing for marriage at Mass, I try to encourage them.  They are doing a good thing.  I want them to keep coming.  There are so many great things that people in the pews are doing and we who are their shepherds ought to encourage them.  We just have to encourage correctly.  The person going in the wrong direction ought to be encouraged towards the right direction.

Encouraging what is good is a particularly important part of being a pastor.  Wherever there is virtue present, wherever there is a manifest sign of the Lord's presence in the lives of people, pastors ought to encourage it.  Catholic parishes ought to be places of encouragement. 

All of this came to mind because the other day, a young college student unknowingly encouraged me.  Last year, he lived abroad and now he is back.  In writing to somebody in the parish he said, "I've thought about it; after visiting every beautiful cathedral I could find in Europe, I think I love Mass at St. Mary's most of all."  Yes, even priests need encouragement and benefit from it.  This young man's words encouraged me greatly.  And we not only are encouraged by words, but we are also encouraged by example.  When I see this young man and many other college students at Mass, I am encouraged.  When I see a small group of Anglicans who are making their way into the Catholic Church at Mass each Sunday, I am encouraged.  When I see people coming and going daily from our Eucharistic Adoration Chapel, I am encouraged.  When I see high school students at youth group, elderly couples helping each other into Mass, and young men from the parish answering the call to study for the priesthood, I am encouraged.  Having dinner with parish families, grabbing a burger and a beer with a group of young husbands and fathers from the parish, and being part of the beautiful friendship of the Church are all encouraging to me. 

As I've grown in the priesthood, I find myself learning to encourage more.  I want to encourage not only my people, but also my brother priests for all the good that they do.  And I've found myself more encouraged by their example.  We all need to be encouraged.  Not the encouragement that is false and phony.  That's just awful.  But, we need the encouragement that makes us want to keep growing in holiness of life.  We owe it to one another to encourage one another.  God gives us to each other in order that we might encourage one another towards Him.  That's encouraging.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Priesthood: Exhausted by Joy

What does a priest do all day?  It all depends.  But, at the end of this beautiful few days, I want to share a little bit of what the experience of being a priest is like.  In no particular order:

I had dinner with two wonderful parishioners who both became Catholic later in life.  They only recently joined our parish--maybe two years ago--and they have added so much to our parish life and to my life as a priest.  Their home is constantly filled with young parishioners and with devoted Christians who are thinking about becoming Catholics. 

I had three meetings about a Bible Study program that our parishes will be beginning in October.  It is the Great Adventure Bible Study and we have approximately 70 parishioners signed up.

I met with several parishioners throughout the past few days who are experiencing some sort of turmoil in their life about one thing or another.

I held Julian's hand.  Every week--while I'm standing on the front steps of Church--Julian who is three years old comes and shakes my hand and then we kind of just stand there holding hands for a few moments.  I love that kid.

At one of the meetings about the Bible Study, a young family came and they were talking to various parishioners.  The young couple was holding a beautiful baby boy.  I explained to some of the other folks there that this was, "Baby Matthew."  At first they all said, "Oh that's nice."  But then it clicked with one of them and she exclaimed, "This isn't THE BABY MATTHEW??!"  Baby Matthew had a rough time when he came into the world and everybody has been praying for him.  He still has difficulties ahead of him, but he is in a far better state than anyone would have imagined a few months ago.  There were just all of these people standing there realizing that without actually ever having met one another, they are all very close to each other.

Myself and our Director for Evangelization lugged three metal desks down a steep flight of stairs, loaded them onto a trailer, drove them to our parish, and then carried them into some new office space.  The desks were generously donated.  I think that they were built around 1950 with armor from surplus tanks.  They weighed a ton.

We had a meeting in order to start up the Knights of Columbus in our parishes.  About 40 men expressed interest and we hope to get this project up and running soon.

On Saturday, a great group of volunteers of all ages came to our former convent building and generously donated their time to painting and cleaning.  Another volunteer came and mowed the lawn.

At the 4pm Mass on Saturday, we had a tenor and a soprano sing Mendelssohn's, "My Song Shall Be Alway Thy Mercy."  I hope to post their singing later because it was magnificent.  They sang it during Communion time.  It must be what heaven sounds like all the time.

As I was coming out of my garage on Sunday morning at 10:30AM, the priest with whom I live was beginning the choir Mass.  The windows of the church were open.  The sound was unbelievable.  I thought, if anybody were walking by, they'd be compelled to go inside the church to find out what is going on in there.  Fr. Chateau--the priest with whom I live--and I always say how spoiled we are to have such beautiful music.

I heard confessions and was kept busy the whole time.

The choir Mass was jammed today.  Tons of families, guests, college students, and all sorts of joyful people.  I was delighted to see a young couple coming into Mass that I will be marrying later this week!

I was visited by three seminarians.  Another seminarian wrote to me and told me how he is so grateful for the tons of cards he gets from my parishioners.  The parishioners here have a custom of offering holy hours for seminarians and then sending them a card to let them know that they were prayed for during an hour of Eucharistic Adoration.

A seminarian asked me if he could have his first Mass here next year.  Awesome!

I saw two other young men at Mass this weekend who I know are thinking about the priesthood.

I spent the evening on Sunday with our high school youth ministry group where there were about twenty kids.

When I told the priest with whom I live today that I was going to watch the Patriots' Game, he said, "Remember you watch TV with your eyes and not your mouth."  His point is that sometimes I get excited and loud when I watch a sporting event (even if I am not a particularly huge fan of the sport).  His comment--good natured, I think--made me grateful for the great life we have in our rectory and also for the great team of people who work for the parish.  We have a great group of folks.

I got to offer Mass and to preach the Gospel.  It is so awesome to get up week after week and preach the Gospel and to teach about the Catholic Faith.  I'm totally thrilled for this Year of Faith and have spent tons of time reading, writing, and preparing for this great moment in our life.

I prayed--which I need to do more of.  I see the Year of Faith not only as a time to teach and to preach others, but as I time to draw closer to the Lord myself.  I'm blessed that I have all of these great parishioners to help me.

I'm exhausted!  And it is the best type of exhaustion there is.  It is the exhaustion that only joy can give.  It is the exhaustion of being overwhelmed by the goodness and beauty of something awesome.  All of the things listed here are simply a small portion of what really occurs in the life of the priest.  There are the hundreds of encounters, subtle nods of the head, hugs, requests for prayers, confidences, laughs, and so many other things that it would be impossible to list. 

Being a priest is totally awesome.  Priesthood puts me in constant contact with Jesus Christ--in his sacraments, in his word, and in his people.  In each of these situations, Jesus is revealing himself and asking me, "Who do you say that I am?"  And the awesomeness of these encounters elicits only one possible response.  With Peter, I confess that "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God."

Being a priest is also totally exhausting sometimes.  So, this exhausted and joyful priest better say his prayers before he falls asleep.

Thank you Lord for making me a priest and for giving me a flock.  You are the Christ!