Saturday, March 3, 2012

You Might Be Happy: Reflections on the Priesthood

On my 17th Anniversary of Ordination to the Priesthood, I came across this sermon from 1995, eight weeks after I was ordained. I was asked to preach on "Call by Name" Sunday, a vocations program at my home parish, Saint Andrew's in Roswell, Georgia.

While I have grown wiser and perhaps more concise (3000 words!) over the years, this sermon still reflects my feelings about the priesthood and the wonderful years the Lord has given me. It tells a bit of my story and asks all of us to reflect on our own vocations.

Fr. Paul Williams, pastor, Saint Joseph's, Dalton, Georgia, March 4th, 2012


Homily, 3rd Sunday Easter, C (St Andrew, Call by Name, 4/28-29/1995)

This past week has been for me a time of “last things”, as I have finally finished my seminary studies. My last paper ever. My last class, ever. My last exam, ever. The last time I would gather with brother seminarians for 7am Mass and community evening prayer. My last night in a 10-foot by 12-foot room in the seminary. Indeed, probably the last time I’ll see some of the finest men I’ve ever known - as we all go off to different parts of the world to begin our ministry as priests.

As each of these last things came to pass, I found myself reflecting on what it was like when I first got to the seminary, four years ago. And as Father Reynolds has asked me to preach these Masses for the “Call by Name” vocations program, I thought I would share with you some of my reflections. And while I will speak mostly about the priesthood, let me emphasize from the start that God calls all of us in a special way to serve him, whether it be in the priesthood, religious life as a sister or nun, or in marriage or the single life.

When I first got to the seminary at the beginning of orientation weekend, I had everything I thought I needed packed into the back of my truck - books, clothes, CD-player, computer. I pulled up to the seminary, and immediately, a dozen upper classmen greeted me, shuffled me into the reception room, and proceeded to unpack my truck and take all my stuff up 4 flights of steps to my new room (they were so thorough that I later found my jumper cables in the room). Well, I thought this was great and thanked them, and they just smiled at me. You see, it turns out they had an ulterior motive - just in case I started having second thoughts during the weekend, they wanted to make it harder for me to change my mind (4 flights of steps are a great deterrence to hasty decisions).

And that first weekend was pretty challenging. After a relaxing night where I got acquainted with my new roommate from the Virgin Islands, that morning we were told to put on our clerics and report to the Grotto for Mass and orientation. So, I dutifully got up, donned my clerics, looked at myself in the mirror - wearing clerics for the first time (Roman collar and everything)- and thought to myself, “my God, what am I doing here?” Then I went up to the Grotto, and looked around at that Holy place and thought, “my God, what am I doing here?” Then I looked around at my fellow classmates from all over the country, men of every description you could imagine, and thought, “my God, what am I doing here?”

Then the priest, Fr. Manochio, perhaps the holiest priest I have ever seen or known, begins the Mass, and when he gets to the homily, the first thing he says is, “I bet you’re probably sitting there asking yourself, my God, what am I doing here?” And the funny thing about it was that as I looked around, my classmates were nodding their heads with wide eyes.

What was I doing there? Bottom line: God called and I answered. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Those of you who may have seen the coverage of my ordination in the Georgia Bulletin may remember the picture of me blessing a family. Well, they are wonderful dear people that I know from Carrollton, and I saw them again on Holy Thursday. Their youngest son is David, 2-1/2 years old, and after Mass, his mom was holding him and I went up to him and said, “So, David, did you have a good time tonight?” [Nods head yes] “So, are you going to be a priest someday?” [Deliberately shakes head - side to side] So, I told his mom that this was a sure sign he was going to be a priest, because that was me when the Lord first called - no way [shaking head].

Like Jeremiah who said to the Lord, “I am too young”, or Isaiah who looked up to the Holy of Holies and said, “Woe is me! I am a man of unclean lips”, or Jacob who wrestled with the angel - like all whom God calls, I wrestled with that call, tried to run from it, tried to reason my way out of it, tried to pretend it didn’t happen. I gave the Lord all sorts of excuses: I wanted to continue my career - I was a scientist, not a priest; I wanted to get married, have children, buy a house in the suburbs and spend my weekends watching football and arguing with my son about who’s turn it was to mow the lawn (what goes around comes around). I didn’t ask for much - just what every other young man my age wants out of life. But you know what? The Lord handled each of my objections - one by one - and he answered each of my questions, except one, which I had to answer myself - would I trust him?

And that’s why I entered the seminary. You see, as I was considering the priesthood, there was a time in my life where I was exactly where I wanted to be: I lived in Florida an hour from the beach, I had a good job with great prospects for the future, and at my side at daily Mass one morning, there was a lovely young lady who had become a good friend. She knew I was thinking about the priesthood, and we had decided together that we would go to Mass that day and ask the Lord for a blueprint - whatever he willed for our lives, we would do, if only he would bother telling us what it was. Well, I got to Mass, got down on my knees, and was about to ask the Lord for that blueprint when suddenly something else came to me, “Paul, don’t pray for a blueprint. Pray for trust instead.”

That’s why I can identify so much with Peter in today’s Gospel. The Lord calls Peter by name, “Simon, son of John”, and he asks, “Do you love me?” and the Lord had called me by name and asked me the same question. I replied like Peter, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you”, but I qualified it, “you see, I’m doing rather nicely in my career, and I promise I’ll always dedicate my work to you.” But the Lord calls us by name and asks again, “Do you love me?” “Why yes, Lord, you know that I love you - if you send me that wife I asked for, I promise to be a good husband and father.” I continued to place qualifications and conditions on my response. And still, he calls us by name a final time and asks, “Do you love me more than these - more than your career, more than your dreams?” And I can almost hear the desperation in Peter’s voice, because I felt it in my own call, “Lord, you know everything. You know well that I love you - that I’d do whatever you tell me - but is this really what you want me to do?” And the Lord responds again with the call to serve, “Tend my sheep.” He was saying to me, “I have a plan for you, trust me.”

Well, of the more than 300 men I have known in the last four years who have entered the seminary to pursue a vocation to the priesthood, all have experienced similar calls and similar struggles. And there are two objections to entering the priesthood that I see most frequently.

The first objection is a feeling of unworthiness from within and discouragement from without. How many of us look at ourselves, see our weaknesses and failings and say, “I’m not worthy, I’m too weak and too sinful, there’s no way I can do that.” And I have only one answer to that objection: of course you can’t! If any of us pretends that the work is ours and not the Lord’s, then our work has failed before it has begun. As Jesus said, "For human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible." I don’t care what your vocation is - priesthood, religious life, marriage, single life - as Ps. 127 says, “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do the builders labor.” My vocation to the priesthood is not about me, it is about Jesus Christ. When John had his vision of Revelation, what did he see? Thousands and tens of thousands around the throne, not sitting around congratulating themselves on getting into heaven, but all crying out, “To the One seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, be praise and honor, glory and might, forever and ever!” This is about Jesus Christ, not us. As Ps. 115 says, “Non nobis Nomine Domine” - “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to your name give the glory.”

And to anyone who would feel discouraged because of unworthiness, just look again to Peter, who would look at the Lord and say, “depart from me, for I am a sinful man” and would even deny him three times as he was being carried off to Calvary. This same man would be given charge over the young church - the Rock on which the Lord would build.

And very often, I see men and women discouraged from pursuing a vocation because of discouragement from without. This takes many forms: overt and subtle. Overt in the frequent attacks we see on the Church and the priesthood in Hollywood and the like, the jokes told about nuns who used to teach us, and even the scandals given by a few priests themselves. Subtle discouragement happens when we view a vocation as a last resort or escape from the world - how many times have you heard someone jokingly say, “Oh, I guess I’ll go join a convent or a monastery”? I know a young priest who wasn’t at his parish two weeks before the schoolgirls took to calling him “Father what-a-waste.” If we don’t view a vocation to the priesthood or religious life as a worthy calling and if we don’t defend it and encourage it in our children, then why are we surprised when our young people do not pursue it?

I know of men in the seminary who have known they were going to be priests since they were 9 years old. I know of a young girl today, 7 years old, who’s been telling her mom since she was 5 that she wants to be a nun. And you know, she just might someday. But I worry that as she grows older, others will place doubts, discourage her, or poke fun at her. Now, if she changes her mind sometime during the next 14 or so years, wonderful. Let her go wherever the Lord calls. But let her change her own mind - none of us has the right to change it for her.

The second objection that I hear most often to entering priesthood or religious life is perhaps the biggest hang-up in our society today. I was driving back to the seminary one week after my ordination (Lord knows it was like being told I had to go back to purgatory after spending a week in heaven...), and since I was in no hurry to get back, I stopped at a Holiday Inn to divide up the trip. Well, I checked in, and the clerk asked me if I was eligible for any discounts. (Was I a member of the AARP or something like that?) Well, on a hunch, I said, “well, I’m a priest, does that help?” Well, you would have thought I’d hit him upside the head, because he did the classic double take... he looked at me with his eyes wide, then he went back to his work, he looked at me again, tried to look busy, and then he started babbling, “Wow, you’re really a priest? Like, a Catholic priest? You’re not kidding, are you? Wow, like that’s great. Wow.” And then he just came right out and said it, “You mean, like, you’re not going to have sex for the rest of your life?” I just had to laugh, but I was glad he asked the question, because it was an honest question and probably what I hear most often. I did my best to give him the two-minute explanation about the call to priesthood and celibacy, (but I didn’t get a discount).

So, celibacy. What is celibacy? The young man behind the counter thought it was a renunciation of sex. He was wrong. It is a simple promise not to marry. And to be perfectly clear about what I am saying, the Church teaches, the scriptures teach, and Jesus himself teaches that sexuality is reserved for marriage, that all Christians are called to be chaste: those who are not married must refrain completely, and those who are, must treat it with dignity, respect and fidelity, because not only is it an expression of total love for one another, but when open to new life, as it should be, the married couple co-creates with God a new human life, a child with an immortal soul, destined to eternal life.

Obviously, that is an amazing and wonderful thing, and we are right to desire it and seek it - to share your entire life with the one you love, to give yourself completely to someone because they are worth loving, and then to have as a result of your union, the fruit of your love - a child. It is a precious gift we have in marriage, and if it were not so precious, then the gift of celibacy would be meaningless.

Why would a young man or young woman want to give up something so beautiful? Well, the answer is real simple: the call of the Lord who said to his disciples, “some have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it."

You see, there’s really no great difference between marriage and celibacy. When I first arrived at the seminary, we were told from the very beginning that if we did not have the qualities that would make us a good family man, a good husband, a good father, then we did not have the qualities necessary to be a priest. The difference is this: the husband’s love for his wife is exclusive, not in the negative sense, but in the sense that he has promised to devote himself entirely to her and to her alone, and to the care of their children, for the rest of his life. For the celibate, our love must be non-exclusive, in that we must treat everyone we meet as a mother, daughter, sister, father, son, or brother. In a very real sense, as a celibate, all of God’s people are my family. Marriage and celibacy are not opposed - one is not higher or greater than the other - they are complimentary, and each serves its unique purpose in building up the kingdom of God. For the married person, the promise made to the Israelites holds true, “If you obey the commandments of the Lord... loving him, and walking in his ways... you will live and grow numerous, and the Lord, your God, will bless you...” And for the celibate, Jesus makes this promise, “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.”

Well, as I conclude, I realize that probably 90% of you are thinking, “this doesn’t apply to me - I don’t have a religious vocation; I’m married or I already know what the Lord has planned for me.” And that is wonderful, especially for those of you who have truly discovered your vocation and live it faithfully. But let me tell you this: this does apply to you, all of you. If you are elderly, pray for vocations. If you are married, encourage vocations in your children. If you are single, be open, seek God’s will in your life, and encourage others who may be thinking about a vocation. If you are a young person, start praying now - today.

My ordination 8 weeks ago was probably the happiest day of my life, as you can imagine. People have asked me how it felt, and I can only say this: I felt that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I no longer said, “My God, what am I doing here”, but instead, “Thank you Jesus for bringing me here.” Well, for whatever reason, I just couldn’t hold it in, and as we processed out at the end of the ordination Mass, I had a big grin on my face. I probably looked pretty silly, but the 7 year old girl I told you about, the one who wants to be a nun, saw me and leaned up to her mom to say, “Mom, he’s smiling” as if she weren’t expecting it. Well, I’ll end with this: if any of you are considering a vocation to serve the Lord in whatever way, especially the priesthood or religious life, then I must warn you - you run one great risk, and that is this: you might be happy.