Saturday, October 29, 2011

It's Not About Me

Priesthood Sunday, October 30th, 2011
Fr. Paul D. Williams, Jr., pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton, GA
Click here: Interview with Fr. Paul on

Last night, I had an opportunity to participate in some Georgia Tech homecoming festivities with my fraternity brothers, many whom I haven't seen in many years – we're approaching our 25th anniversary. I was really glad I went, because it was delightful to see how they were doing, hear about their families and careers, and to remember the good times. It was a blessed evening. They were happy that I was a priest and doing well (they got over their surprise about my call to the priesthood years ago), and I bragged a lot about our parish. They, of course, along with family and other long term friends, were not used to calling me “Father”, but that doesn't bother me, because they knew me well, long before I was given the title. But some smiled when they attached my college nickname to the title, so they called me “Father Willie”. Only they can call me that...

This Sunday, the Church celebrates Priesthood Sunday and encourages the faithful to express their gratitude for their priests and pastors, to pray for them, and to reflect a bit on the meaning of the priesthood. Earlier this week, I was interviewed by an Episcopalian priest for his website, “Church Next”, which helps Protestant pastors to build their congregations in this age of Mega Churches, so he wanted to talk to someone from the original Mega Church, the Catholic Church, and I was the first Roman Catholic priest on his site. The Archdiocese referred him to me because we have a very large, growing parish, perhaps the biggest bilingual Catholic parish in the South.

When he asked for any insights to pass onto other pastors about their role in growing churches, I said, “as a pastor, I remind myself each day that 'it's not about me.'” It's about the people of the church, who I serve as the least among them. That's the ideal at least. Jesus reminds the Pharisees of this in today's Gospel. They were fond of titles, being called “Rabbi” or “Father”, “they love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces.” These things will come, but they are not deserved and are not to be sought as an end in themselves. It's a simple reminder that with positions of honor and authority come great responsibility and obligations to serve, not be served, as Christ himself modeled for us.

In his admonition to the Pharisees, Jesus warned them of the errors they had made, the pits they had fallen into and their attempts to drag others along with them. They were so caught-up in the practices of their religion that they had forgotten its principles. If you remember my sermon from a couple of weeks ago, I spoke of how a Christian should view worldly affairs, starting with our fundamental principles, which guide our general policies, that we then put into concrete practice. Principles are universal, applicable to all, and inviolable. Policies are the guidelines we use to serve those principles and make them present; they are overlying philosophies that can admit different approaches to the same principles. And practice is the level where we apply the principles and policies to individual circumstances, making exceptions and adjustments as necessary.

These same guidelines can be applied to how we view our life in the Church. The Church has its fundamental truths that it protects, lives and teaches – it's principles that are unchanging and universal. It has its policies, which are guidelines flowing from those principles, that apply them to each age. It has its practices, which allow, for example, an individual parish to adapt to its unique situation, guided by policies and true to principles.

A good example is the upcoming liturgical translation of the Roman Missal that we'll begin using fully on the first Sunday of Advent, just a few weeks from now. The Mass is the Mass, the highest expression of worship of the Church. It has its essential elements, the Word, the Eucharist, the Consecration, Holy Communion, and so on. We have policies that adapt it to different regions and languages and settings and seasons. And we develop individual practices that can change and apply to the whole church or allow adaptation to each local parish.

So with the new translation, the Mass is still the Mass, holy and reverent as always. The language is now adapted to a new policy that includes a more direct translation of the Latin. And we as a parish have chosen a new musical setting for the sung Mass parts, that may differ from our neighboring parishes, but still sings the same Mass that belongs to the whole Church.

And we priests, of course, have some flexibility for individual preferences. We have the honor of celebrating the greatest gift Christ gave to his Church, but it is not our Mass, it is His, given to His people. But we do bring our own style, because we cannot help but be unique individual human beings. As long as this style affirms the Church's universal principles, are within its polices and acceptable practices, then hopefully the different styles of priests will be a source of nourishment, not division.

So, on this Priesthood Sunday, I ask you to appreciate, or tolerate if necessary, these differences. And realize an important aspect of what Jesus teaches in today's Gospel that applies especially to the attitude of the faithful towards priests and the priest's understanding of himself. Jesus says, “call no one on earth your father.” He is using hyperbole (not literal) to remind us that we have only One Father in Heaven, and that our earthly fathers, our parents or our priests, are but instruments of the Divine Father.

I look at it this way: love your priests, appreciate them when they guide you closer the Lord, but do not hang your faith on them. Saint Paul warned the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:12), do not say “I belong to Paul”, “I belong to Apollos”, or “I belong to Cephas”. In other words, do not put your faith in the one who teaches, but in the One who is Taught, the Teacher of all. Be grateful to the teacher, but do not set yourself up for a fall should he fail you. And that's my concern today. Priests are human instruments of God's Grace, especially in the Word and Sacraments. But like everyone, we are in a continual process of overcoming our weaknesses and growing in virtues. This means that we will inevitably disappoint you, but since we're on the same Path, with your eyes fixed on Christ and not on his instruments, it will not stop you on your Journey. Only our Lord never needs your forgiveness, we priests do need it and are grateful for it.

I'm very grateful to be here at Saint Joseph's, and I hope to be here for many years to come. As I have learned in my 16+ years as a priest, the priesthood is not about me, it's about Christ. We priests will come and go, with our different policies and practices and "style", but the parish will continue no matter the priest or pastor. And it is my hope that you appreciate their gifts, lovingly tolerate their foibles, but most importantly, keep your eyes fixed on Christ, our True and Eternal High Priest.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Believe in Miracles - My Niece's Baby Story

(This is my sister Romi's letter to her oldest daughter, Mary Virginia, on the occasion of her 15th birthday. True story. - Fr. Paul)

Mary Virginia's Baby Story

Where shall your Daddy and I begin? As you well know, your Momma named you after the Blessed Mother in my twenty’s when I became a Roman Catholic. This, of course, was years before I met your handsome Father. When I was dating your Father and I was beginning to ask God for confirmation if he was indeed “The One,” he mentioned that his mother was named “Mary Virginia.” Hmmmm … Isn’t God funny? I always knew in my heart that my first child would be a little girl named “Mary Virginia.”

After we married and after we were told we had a fertility problem, we went through a very difficulty time where our faith was tested. We were challenged by well-meaning people about “invitro fertilization” and “why didn’t we try it, etc …”; however, we stuck by our Catholic beliefs and trusted that God would take care of us in some way. I even imagined a little Chinese “Mary Virginia” but for some reason I couldn’t quite place her face.

My Daddy, your P.D., died in September 1995 after a long painful battle with cancer. He suffered a great deal for his family and offered all of it up for us. I asked him if he would speak with the “fertility” angel in heaven and see if he could do anything for your Daddy and me. He said he didn’t know how Heaven worked but that he would see what he could do.

Finally, in February 1996, we made the decision to adopt an Indian “Mother Theresa” baby. Long story short - The day after we mailed the application off, we discovered we were pregnant. Oh and have I mentioned that same day was my Daddy, your P.D.’s, birthday! Isn’t God Great?

As you are aware, my pregnancy was not an easy one. I firmly believe that I had to suffer for you and your sisters. I don’t know why. But some gifts come at a cost. I was not surprised, however, at the sonogram at 19 weeks that I was carrying a girl. Shocker! I knew you before you were born.

As you are also aware, I developed high blood pressure (pre-eclampsia) and you and I almost died on the operating table during my emergency c-section. I will spare you the details but it was really close there for a while. Again, God is Great and very, very Good.

You and I both went through a difficult time for a while afterwards. I didn’t even get to meet you for the first couple of days because we were both so sick. Finally, a nurse in the middle of the night rolled me down the hall after saying it was time to meet my daughter! How blessed your Daddy and I were to be surrounded by loving family during this difficult time. Meme and Aunt Gi-Gi were there the first night and then everyone else arrived. We were able to celebrate your Daddy’s birthday in the hospital the day after your birthday!

It is also very nice having a priest in the family since Uncle Father Paul was able to give last rites twice to me, once before you were born and again after. Not to mention that you were baptized on your birthday! At first the Doctors told us you had heart problems, then intestinal problems, then breathing problems … Would the Hell ever stop? Eventually though, after 3 ½ weeks, we were able to bring you home on a heart monitor.

How I remember that first night! First, we called the nurses at Northside Hospital because you wouldn’t stop crying (how embarrassing), then your heart monitor went off around 4:30 am and your Daddy jumped up in his underwear to run downstairs to confront the burglar he thought was breaking in the house. Ah, good times! Don’t worry – I won’t bring up your constipation problems! Love those glycerin suppositories!

There was your first bath where you pooped in the tub. Or how our cat Soccer ate through your heart monitor during an ice storm and the hospital sent a courier in the storm with a new one. Baby Kate, blanket, Casa the Barbie, memories … Again good times!

How proud your Daddy and I are of what a lovely young woman you are becoming! You have a confidence that I wish I had at that age. Always know that no matter what, we love you unconditionally. We may get angry with you or not approve of a decision you make but we will always love and support you. There is nothing you cannot tell us; however, know that your Aunt Gigi, Aunt Sharon, Uncle Father Paul or even Meme and Grandma are available to help soften the blow if necessary.

I remember one of the nurses that took care of you when you were born saying not to worry about “premie” babies. They are tough! She is exactly right. What with our moves and changing schools so many times, you hold your head up and just charge straight in. You are kind and funny and giving (if you would just not fight with your sisters so much). By dancing with that shy boy at the Homecoming Dance this past weekend, you showed how confident you are in yourself and how aware you are that there are other people who need a little kindness. It is not hard to be nice, is it?

I often think about P.D.’s promise to talk to the “fertility” angel in heaven and I catch myself getting sad that you didn’t get to meet P.D. – especially when playing volleyball which he loved to watch me play! But then I remind myself there were too many God-incidences that confirmed my Daddy’s intervention on our behalf. Let’s not forget you and P.D. both have that red birthmark on the back of your necks. Meme and I are convinced it was a kiss from your P.D. to you and to us to let us know that he has not missed a thing and that you met him in Heaven before you came down to us.

As we close this letter, we are amazed that it has been 15 years ago that you were given to us! And we look forward to all of the years ahead. Keep making good prayerful decisions. We know that God has got quite a blessed life planned for you!

We love you!

Momma and Daddy
October 18, 2011

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Politics and the Kingdom

Homily, 29 Ordinary Time A (10-16-2011, SJCC, PDW)

This past week, I spent some valuable time with my best friends while I was on vacation. Naturally, when we get together, we discuss the issues of the day, and many of our discussions can be quite animated, and my friends and I have strong opinions. We often disagree on some political issues, but we remain friends. Many of you have probably experienced the same thing: being close friends with someone who has political views that are totally opposite of yours. I call it the “beer and pizza” analogy: with a good friend, you can sit down and argue, disagree, raise your voice and wave your hands in the air, yet still go home at the end of the evening as close friends.

Well, how should a Catholic Christian view politics? What Jesus says in today's Gospel is a guideline that the Church has used throughout the centuries, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Each has its proper place. The Christian is to be both a good citizen on earth and a good citizen of heaven. The two do not necessarily conflict. But a deeper understanding of what this means is required. For example, the Catholic Church itself does not endorse specific candidates or parties, but we do take stands on issues: respect for life and marriage, social justice, human rights, poverty, and so on.

Why is this? Well a seminary professor of mine explained it to me this way. A Christian looking at worldly matters ought to be guided by three things: principles, policies, and practice. Now principles are those universal truths that guide all of our actions. This is the level of religion, because these truths come from divine revelation (Scripture and the teaching of the Church), or from natural law (those truths that we know from our human nature and the order of creation). These truths form the basis of all that we are and hold dear. Examples of principles would be: belief in the dignity of all human beings, regardless of race, class, nationality, or religious beliefs; respect for life; the call to help the poor and the needy; the need for peace between nations and an end to war; and so on.

Then flowing from those principles are policies which help us make these principles a reality. And this is the level of politics. Different political parties and views can have the same principles, but differ in how they go about achieving them. For example, one party may believe the government ought to help the poor in one way while the other party may believe the government ought to achieve the same goal in a different manner. Neither is right or wrong in the universal sense as both want to help the poor. But, either may be right or wrong in a practical sense. In other words, two good and sincere people can hold different beliefs about the policies necessary to go about serving the poor, and it remains to be seen which one actually succeeds at achieving the goal in a way that respects our principles.

And this leads then to the level of practice. While policies can provide us with general guidelines about how to go about achieving our principles, our policies cannot be absolute and unyielding. There may be certain circumstances and cases where exceptions may need to be made or mercy granted. At the level of practice are those concrete situations on a day to day basis where, guided by our policies we actually go about the work needed to achieve our goals, using our judgment and discretion in individual cases. So, those are the three p’s: principle, policy, and practice.

Looking at it this way, we can see then the role that our Christian faith plays in the political arena. We, as Christians, are guided and motivated by the principles of our faith, and we seek to make those principles a reality in the world by the policies of our various political parties. And our faith demands then that we be active and work on a daily basis for the practical aspect of our political views. We can’t simply sit back and believe and hope in our principles. Instead we need to be active and participate in the political process to bring them about. That’s why the Church encourages us to be good citizens, voting and contributing to society. Thus, in our Church we can have Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Independents, all in the same pew, worshiping together, holding the same universal principles, yet perhaps disagreeing on the levels of policy and practice.

Archbishop Chaput reminds us that this is right and a duty of all Christians, "The Church claims no right to dominate the secular realm. But she has every right - in fact an obligation - to engage secular authority and to challenge those wielding it to live the demands of justice. In this sense, the Catholic Church cannot stay, has never stayed, and never will stay 'out of politics.' Politics involves the exercise of power. The use of power has moral content and human consequences. And the well-being and destiny of the human person is very much the concern, and the special competence, of the Christian community." (p. 217, see below)

However, there are a few dangers, a few pitfalls that may trip us up if we’re not careful. C. S. Lewis, in his novel, “The Screwtape Letters”, points them out. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. His book is a fictional collection of letters from a demon supervisor named Screwtape to a demon in training named Wormwood. He tells his young associate how to go about the task of leading their “client”, a person, into the arms of their “father below”, namely the devil in hell. And in one of the letters, he recommends this: tempt the fellow to make his politics a religion. In other words, have him embrace a political party and then elevate it to the level of principle, as if the policies of that party are divinely revealed and absolute. If he can do this, then his political opponents become “the enemy”, enabling him to demonize them as if they’re heretics, violating the law of charity and mutual respect. On the other hand, if that doesn’t work, Screwtape explains to Wormwood, have him reduce his religion to the level of politics. In other words, have him make his Christian faith merely an extension of and justification for his political views, working only for a worldly kingdom, forgetting the goal of our religion, namely preparing ourselves for heaven.

Certainly, we see many people falling into these traps today. When I see one political party or candidate demonizing another, they have elevated their politics to the level of religion, where their political views are absolute and anyone who sincerely disagrees with their policies can be portrayed as the enemy or the devil. Or, when I see someone using their Christian faith to justify their political views, they have reduced their religion to mere politics. And I see this happening on both ends of the spectrum, liberal and conservative, especially when I see politicians speaking in churches. The Catholic church doesn’t allow that, perhaps because we learned our lesson in the Middle Ages when the Church was overly involved in politics. But it seems that sometimes many forget the lessons we learned and the wisdom of the founding fathers who wanted a separation of Church and State. Separation of Church and State doesn’t mean the absolute exclusion of religion from public life. On the contrary, it means that our faith should form the principles we believe in, that we should be active in the public arena with mutual respect.

The keyword in Jesus' expression, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” is “give”. What lies at the heart of being a good citizen on earth and in heaven is service, “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” It was through the gift of himself on the Cross that Jesus taught us what true love, true service means: laying down your life for your friends, indeed even for your enemies. As Jesus said, “the Son of man came to serve, not to be served” and “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” So our involvement in worldly affairs should always have service of the good of others at the forefront. Too often, I have observed, politics is reduced to “what is best for me.” A Christian cannot live that way, nor can he separate service of God from service of neighbor.

A good example of a Saint who demonstrated this authentic Christian view of service and politics was King St. Louis of France. Though he was a man of great worldly power and influence, he was a man who knew Christ as his King. He lived a prayerful and devout life and considered sin his worst enemy. He once said that he would rather be a leper than commit a single mortal sin. But he was also a wise and just ruler, who worked to end the political squabbles and feuds among his people. And he knew that to be a Christian meant working to help the poor and the needy, so he established many institutions for doing so. But more importantly, he did it himself, allowing some indigent people to live in his palace and daily serving meals to the poor nearby, often serving them in person.

But I like the story of St. Louis for this reason. Near his room in the palace, he had a chapel built where many of his ancestors were buried. And each morning he would rise to visit the chapel where he himself would one day be buried. He did this simply to remind himself of death, that he would one day be accountable to his Maker and would be judged on how wisely and lovingly he had used his gifts. The story is told that one of his successors wanted the chapel moved, not wanting to be reminded of death, but the workers refused to move the remains of a Saint, so his successor simply built a palace elsewhere. But St. Louis knew why he was on this earth: to prepare himself for the Kingdom of Heaven.

And we can do the same if we live a life of service to others, working for true justice and peace, reconciliation among peoples and respect for the Gospel of Life, then perhaps we may hear the consoling words of our Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant... inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

Check out Archbishop Chaput's book, "Render Unto Caesar" Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs In Political Life.