|Call of St. Matthew by Caravaggio|
Ten years later, in the months preceding my ordination to the priesthood, I was once again overwhelmed by the thought that Jesus might actually be calling me to give myself to be a priest. One of the things that really made me nervous was the part of the ordination rite where the man to be ordained prostrates himself on the ground. For me, this was the sign of laying everything down. It meant keeping nothing for myself.
With increasing nervousness, I began an intense period of negotiation with the Lord. All I knew is that I wanted to lay down 99% of my life for him. I thought that was a fairly reasonable and generous offer on my part. I didn't even know what the 1% I wanted to keep was. I just felt like I wanted to hang on to something--anything--that would belong solely to me. "Why does He even need everything from me?" I would ask. I would think that there must be some way around the whole idea of laying down my whole life for Him. I was like a lawyer trying to draw up a contract with some small loophole. "On the day of my ordination I, David Barnes, will give to God everything I am and possess except for the following . . . ."
I recall sitting for long periods of time in the seminary chapel. As I looked at the tabernacle, I felt like I was sitting at the bargaining table with Christ. I thought that eventually I would make him an offer that he couldn't refuse. I mean, I'd be willing even to give 99.9%. I just wanted to hang on to something. Laying down on that floor was an image of dying completely to self. I was looking for something a little less total than death. Jesus, however, is not a negotiator. No matter what reasonable proposal I made, I could envision Jesus sitting across from me and smiling, as if to say, "No matter how long this goes on, I'm asking you to follow me completely."
On one of those afternoons that I was sitting in the chapel, a priest came in and sat down next to me. He stayed for a while and prayed next to me. As he got up to leave, he turned to me and said, "He wants it all, nothing less." Then, he left. That was pretty cool!
Today, sixteen years after I laid down on the floor of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, I offered the morning Mass in the parish where I am presently assigned. The Gospel today was about Jesus asking Peter, "Do you love me?" and instructing Peter to "feed my sheep." At the end of that Gospel, Jesus tells Peter, "When you were younger you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go." The Gospel concludes with Jesus saying to Peter, "Follow me."
This is Jesus' negotiation proposal: "Follow me." It is the proposal he made to Peter by the Sea of Galilee. It is the proposal he made to me in the adoration chapel of Sacred Heart Church, North Quincy. "Follow me." It is the proposal he made to me in the seminary. It is the proposal he makes when I fail him and betray him. It is the proposal he makes when I am successful. It is the proposal he makes when I want to keep something for myself. It is the proposal he makes when I have had to endure suffering for his sake. It is the proposal he makes when I am the beneficiary of the kindness of others. "Follow me." When I have failed to follow him, his proposal continues, "Follow me."
At times, this "follow me," is maddening! Following him is not always just a romantic notion of walking with him along the Sea of Galilee. "Follow me," entails being united to him in his humiliations, suffering, and death. "Follow me to scourging. Follow me to the crowning of thorns. Follow me Golgotha. Follow me." But, this "follow me" is also an invitation to the resurrection. As St. Paul says, if we are united to him in a death like his, so too shall we be united with him in a like resurrection.
Maybe reading my blog today, there is some young man who is wondering if God is calling him to be a priest. Maybe you are holding off because you want some sort of great sign. Maybe you are hoping that if you wait long enough, Jesus might come down on his asking price! If you hear him saying to you, "Follow me," that's all you are getting. That's what Peter and Andrew, James and John got. That's what Matthew got. "Follow me." No matter how much you try to wear him down with counter-proposals, no matter how much you try to convince him of your sinfulness and unworthiness, no matter how you seek a different proposal, he is not backing down. If he says, "Follow me," that's the answer. He wants it all. How do you know if God is calling you? If you hear him say, "Follow me," and you get up and follow him, each day he will give you more and more clarity about your vocation. But, he's not going to meet your demands. The invitation to follow him means that you have to get up and follow. It is in the following itself that you gain certitude about your vocation. If you refuse to follow, you won't gain surety. You will know by actually following.
In the homily that inaugurated his pontificate, Benedict XVI referred to his predecessor Blessed John Paul II. Here is what he said:
"If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life. Amen."
Today, on the sixteenth anniversary of my ordination, I want to echo Pope Benedict and Blessed John Paul II. If you are a young man who has heard the voice of Christ saying, "Follow me," do not be afraid to do so. In laying down your life--hard as it is at times--you will find true life.