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