Wednesday, January 25, 2017

St. Paul's Conversion, The Most Important Thing, and Everything

Along the way, I've met priests who have no idea what day they were ordained a transitional deacon. Some older priest friends described it as, "We went down to the seminary chapel, the bishop ordained us deacons, and then we went to class."  For me, however, the memory of my diaconate ordination is quite vivid. In fact, it happened twenty years ago this morning.

I had been in the seminary for eight years at that point, so you might expect that ordination would have been approached calmly. I, however, was anything but calm. Since I was a kid, I had thought about being a priest. By high school, I was pretty confident that I would be. In seminary, while some guys went through daily machinations about whether they were going to stay or go, I was steady. I had an interior confidence that this was my vocation. Then, Fourth Theology arrived and I realized that I would soon be making promises that would affect my entire life. I was going to be ordained and would be forever a minister of the Church. There would be no going back. I began to wonder, "Did I get this right? Should this all have been so easy? Maybe I should have had lots of crises along the way. Why didn't I? Was the lack of turmoil along the way a sign that I had just been coasting along? I've sinned. I haven't been holy enough. Also, I know that Jesus demands that I give him everything and I bet I have no idea what that "everything" will include. I bet I'm going to make these promises and then realize just how big "everything" really is." 

It was a long semester. I remember standing in the kitchen one day with a priest and he said to me, "You know, you've been here for eight years. At each step along the way, the faculty has affirmed that you have all the signs of a vocation. It's not like you've done this all on your own. You should trust the Church."  It was great advice. It calmed me down a bit, but even right up until I arrived at the Cathedral on ordination morning, I was still fearful. What was ridiculous about the whole thing is that I was taking the positive signs of a vocation and twisting them into negative signs.  The fact that I had not spent eight years in a constant state of indecision was actually a good sign, but I was turning it into the opposite.  On the morning of my ordination, a few seminarian friends drove me into the Cathedral. Before we got there, I asked them to pull over.  I walked into an alley way and stood there by myself in the pouring rain."Lord, this is it. I'm going to the Cathedral and I'm going to get ordained. If I'm not supposed to get ordained, now would be a good time for you to tell me. It will be a bit awkward for my family and friends who are sitting at the Cathedral right now, but that's okay."

One of my friends who was in the car waiting for me to come back told me later, "I was sitting in that car and I thought, 'I don't think he's coming back.'"  But, I did. And once I walked down that aisle, laid down on the floor, and placed myself under the bishop's hands, I've never had the fear that I made a mistake. And, that is saying a lot considering that during the past twenty years the Church in Boston has gone from one chaotic moment to the next. 

I am grateful that I was ordained a deacon on the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Today, twenty years later, I am once again reminded that what is needed in my life is continued conversion. There was a beautiful line in the Office of Readings today. St. John Chrysostom, speaking about St. Paul, says, "The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ." Everything that St. Paul did, preached, and suffered was because he know himself to be loved by Christ. This love of Christ is what converted St. Paul.

Twenty years after I walked down that aisle, I am grateful that I feel like things are just beginning. The love of Christ does not grow old. And, the love of Christ calls us all to a continued conversion. Christ is still asking for "everything." Recently, and quite unexpectedly, Christ once again put before me the question of this "everything." As priests, we can settle into our ways of doing things, our ways of living, our routines. We can settle on giving Christ a little less than everything. We can live as though the "everything" we gave twenty years ago was sufficient. But the reality is, what we gave twenty years ago was a promise to give everything always. Christ is always calling us to more.

In order to know precisely what "everything" means for each of us and how each of us is called to give this "everything," we have to begin with a fact. This fact is at the foundation of everything. This fact sets us free from slavery and enables us to follow where God leads. It gives us the freedom to give everything. Even when we do not fully understand precisely what God is asking of us, if we begin with this fact, then we can trust that things will be made clear. God will not deceive us. This fact makes us willing to preach the full truth, to take up the Cross, and to strive toward holiness. This fact needs to be at the heart of all of our lives, especially the lives of those called to be Christ's ministers.  This fact must be the most important thing of all to us. "The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ."

St. Paul, Pray for Us.

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