15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Preached at: Immaculate Heart of Mary, Sedro-Woolley (5:00pm); Sacred Heart, La Conner (9:30am); Saint Charles, Burlington (11:15am)
“Why did you want to become a priest?”
I have probably spoken about this before, but did you know that I absolutely hate that question?
I certainly do not hate the people who ask me that question, which is everybody. People who ask me that question do so because they are well-meaning and curious, because they care about me and want to get to know me. It is an honest question, and one that is reasonable to ask.
And yet, I still hate it.
I hate it because it assumes that I did want to become a priest.
My friends, I did not want to become a priest. I still do not want to be a priest. Priesthood separates me from the rest of humanity, the vast majority of which cannot relate to or understand my experience. Priesthood requires that I renounce family and freedom for the sake of a mission that so often falls flat, shows very little fruit, and involves people fighting with me. Priesthood makes my happiness dependent exclusively on God and the Christian community, both of whom can often seem distant and abstract. Even with all the struggles that marriage involves, at least it allows for direct conversation.
Of course, this is not to say that I do not love being a priest. I do! It is an incredibly fulfilling vocation which has helped me grow in holiness every step of the way. Priesthood is an incomprehensible gift which I will be unpacking for the rest of my life.
But it is wrong to think that I ever wanted to be a priest. All things being equal, what I wanted was a nice house, a good job, and a normal relationship with God in a regular, neighborhood parish. I wanted to be successful, not radical. I wanted to be interesting, but not weird.
And yet, I am a priest anyway. Why?
What happened was that at some point – or, more accurately, in ever-deepening ways at many different points – I made a choice to follow the will of God. I realized that I am a flawed human being, prone to error and sin, and that the only one I could ever rely on completely, without doubt and without exception, was God. So I determined that I would seek to do his will first, and my will second. At the deepest, most profound, most existential level, it is not that wanted marriage rather than priesthood or that I wanted a secular job rather than a religious vocation. No, at my very core, all I really wanted was to follow Jesus, no matter where he led me, no matter what the cost. And he led me to priesthood.
The other thing I hate about the question “Why did you want to be a priest?” is that it reduces the idea of vocation to personal preference, as though the question of marriage or priesthood were equivalent to a decision between chocolate or vanilla ice cream. It is exactly this assumption that has created a vocations crisis! When priesthood is seen as something that some really weird people are attracted to, people who could never be me or my children, then no one becomes priests, because no one actually fits that category! Priesthood, just like religious life, just like authentic, life-long marriage, is a call from the Lord, a call to sacrifice one’s life, often in ways that are completely unexpected and even unwelcome.
All authentic calls are difficult and uncomfortable. And yet, disciples follow them anyway. Look, for example, at our first reading. Amaziah tells Amos to go prophesy elsewhere. Specifically, he tells him to go “earn his bread” elsewhere, as though Amos were preaching to make a living (which is actually something many prophets in the ancient world did). But Amos responds by saying “I was no prophet, […] I was a shepherd and a dresser of sycamores. The LORD took me from following the flock, and said to me, Go, prophesy to my people Israel.” In other words, Amos is saying “I am not doing this for me. I am not doing this because I want to, or because I have no other way to make a living. I am prophesying to you because God told me to. Otherwise, I would not be here.”
And similarly with the Gospel, you have to imagine that if anyone asked the Apostles why they were traveling with no food, no sack, and no money, they would not respond “because we enjoy it”. No, they are doing the uncomfortable, radical thing because it is what Jesus told them to do.
My friends, we have a choice: we can either ask what we want, or we can ask what Jesus wants.
If we ask what we want, we make ourselves – our sinful, flawed, imperfect selves – the center and standard of all things. But what a fragile foundation. And not just fragile, but small, unimportant, and impotent. Our opinions have absolutely no power to save us. To rely exclusively on our petty selves and our selfish wants is a recipe for disaster, in all ways and in all things.
Instead, we must make the other choice, to ask what Jesus wants.
Because Jesus is the savior of the world. Jesus is the only one who ever has and ever will save us from the power of sin and death. If we want to participate in his victory – and truly there is nothing we want more than to participate in his victory – if we want to participate in his victory, then we need to follow his plan. We need to ask what he wants, for ourselves, for our families, for the Church, and for the world. We need to make Jesus the very center of our lives.
This is what Jesus means when he says that “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Or what St. Paul means when he says that “I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” Or what St. Thomas Aquinas means when he says “Non nisi te, Dominie. Nothing but you, Lord.”
This is the Christian life! At our baptism, Jesus was placed in the center of our lives when our old, sinful selves were destroyed and replaced with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus has already been placed at our center, at our core. But we have to spend the rest of our lives trying to keep him there, trying to focus on him rather than ourselves, trying to let him be the one to act instead of us.
Jesus is the savior of the world, but he chose to extend that salvation to all people not through force, but by sending his followers out into the world. Unless we, his followers, focus exclusively on his will, we will never be able to spread the message of salvation he has entrusted to us.
So, no, my friends, I never once wanted to be a priest. I only ever wanted to do the will of Jesus. May the same be true in your lives as well.
No tuve que predicar en Español este fin de semana, así que no hice una traducción. Lamento que no haya ninguna copia en español.
Featured image found here.