|Photo by Juan Guajardo / NTC|
July 9, 2019
Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton’s Catholic Church
2 Corinthians 11:18-30
As I look around this church this evening and see so many people whom I’ve baptized, confirmed, received their wedding vows, anointed and absolved, and ordained, my heart is filled with joy and I realize that thanksgiving brings us together this evening for two reasons.
First, thanksgiving is always the reason for our coming together for the celebration and sacrifice of the Mass because the very name “Eucharist” means “thanksgiving” and it is the only fitting way that we can offer God true worship and thanks for the gift of His Son.
Secondly, the occasion that brings us together is for us to share gratitude and to express thanks for the gift of 25 years of priestly life and ministry granted to me by Christ. As always, the readings that the Church offers us in celebrating the liturgy help us to enter more deeply into these mysteries.
Our first reading from Genesis requires a little context for understanding. It begins with Jacob having sent his wives, children, and belongings ahead of himself to the place where he is going to meet up with his brother Esau. Jacob is unsure of how that meeting with Esau is going to turn out because he had tricked Esau out of the blessing of their father, Isaac.
Esau and Jacob are twins. Esau is born first so that means that the customary rights of inheritance belong to him even though Jacob is born closely behind Esau, grabbing at Esau’s heel. Their father, Isaac is blind in old age. One day, Esau is hungry, and Jacob takes advantage of Esau’s immediate hunger by bartering with him for Isaac’s blessing and inheritance in exchange for a bowl of stew. Esau agrees to the trade and loans Jacob his cloak so that he can fool their father into thinking that Jacob is Esau.
Isaac is blind and biased towards Esau who is clearly his favorite. Esau is Isaac’s favorite. Esau is entertaining and interesting. Jacob is not. In fact, Jacob is a little pushy and grabby. Yet, when Isaac mistakenly blesses Jacob, the blessing is efficacious. To use a more colloquial expression from our own religious tradition, “it counts for Sunday.” It’s a real blessing and the blessing of the birthright has been given to Jacob even though he has grabbed it, in part, through his own manipulation and quick-thinking.
In Isaac, we see a blindness born of a biased system detached from discernment of God’s will. In Esau, we see entitlement endorsed by a biased system detached from discernment of God’s will. In Jacob, we see envy and self-promotion born of the resentment of a biased system detached from discernment of God’s will.
Esau’s entitlement prompts him to squander what is in fact not his to give away in the first place — the blessing of his father that is in fact a grace of God given through Isaac for the sake of the salvation of the world from sin. Jacob’s envy drives him to squander his own identity and integrity to grab the blessing of his father by pretending to be someone he is not. These are the people through whom God has chosen to bring about His plan of salvation.
In my own life as a priest, having entered seminary some 39 years ago, I can tell you that these approaches of Isaac, of Esau, and of Jacob are sadly not uncommon temptations in the formation of priests and seminarians; very human temptations that have brought about much misery for us today. The approach of Isaac: rely on the bias of the system as automated through indirect discourse and reduce formation to blind and passive compliance to a protocol and a matter of wardrobe. The approach of Esau: to recast a vocation as being a piece of apparel that can be worn as reversible or exchanged for another gift at one’s short-sighted convenience. The approach of Jacob: pretend to be someone you’re not through vesture to appease the bias of the system in order to grab the blessing of ordination.
These approaches are temptations born of fear that are steeped in an atmosphere where God, manifested in His truth, is ignored. These also are the people through whom God’s Son has chosen to continue bringing about His plan of salvation.
Truth follows Jacob everywhere he goes until he comes to the place depicted in our first reading this evening. Jacob finds himself in the dark. The truth pounces upon him and initiates a struggle with Jacob and a grappling contest ensues. The struggling continues within the darkness until the break of daylight, when Jacob is wounded and weakened. Jacob seeks a blessing from his opponent at the end of the contest. This time Jacob identifies himself honestly by his own name in order to receive the blessing — a blessing offered at the initiative of God — not a prize of Jacob’s grabbing as was the blessing that he received from Isaac. Jacob has come to the splendor of the truth.
God gives Jacob the new name of Israel which means “having contended with God.” Jacob, now called Israel, becomes the father of God’s chosen people. This is just as a priest is blessed and ordained to be a father of the People of God and to lead them through contending with the truth in the hard-fought grace of conversion and reconciliation with God. Jacob’s call and blessing from God is much like the life and ministry of the priesthood — a grace that is not earned but rather placed within a struggle, and a “contending with God” in a contest of discernment and formation begun at God’s initiative not our own.
My 25 years of priestly life have involved many struggles and many graces offered by God within these struggles. Priesthood is not for the faint of heart. Many of you who have known me throughout these 25 years know that I seldom have enjoyed the birthright status of Esau in the paternal hearts of some superiors who at times have seemed to me to be abundantly blessed with Isaac’s vision. Yet, God has so blessed me by offering so many of His graces through their generosity and in the struggles with the truth — the truth about myself, the truth about the priesthood, the truth about the Church, and the truth that is fully and gloriously revealed to us in Christ Himself — that God loves us unconditionally and goes to any length to save us. For these graces and their struggles I thank God and those through whom He offered them to me, that I might never forget that they are a gift, and if I should do so, that He might compassionately remind me.
|Photo by Ben Torres / NTC|
The Greek word for truth is aletheia, its literal meaning is not forgetting. Many have helped me not to forget that the truth about priesthood does not involve the shortsighted passivity and vesture of Esau, but the gritty and receptive perseverance of Jacob who receives his vocation to be Israel through contending with the truth. I have found this to be true throughout these past 25 years of priestly life and ministry. The Lord continues to not let me forget this lesson through you, the members of the Church, who remind me of God’s unconditional love for which we each of us are grateful.
Aletheia. Not forgetting. This means we cannot hide. We cannot hide from the awful fact and summons of the Cross. It also means that we cannot hide from the glory and the promise of the Resurrection.
The Gospel speaks of Christ’s heart being moved by compassion for the people because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Sheep without a shepherd do not live long and can only survive for a very short period. Sheep without a shepherd are easily manipulated and prone to various dangers. It is easy to survive by convenient narratives and false pretenses, but only for a short time.
Christ the Good Shepherd leads us into the pastures of the truth, verdant with justice and mercy. It is the life of a priest, including my own, ordained unworthily into the image and likeness of Christ the Good Shepherd that requires the entire gift and transformation of self so that the priest’s life not become the proclamation of himself. We priests can only do this through the grace received in the struggle that prompts us to boast of nothing but our weakness. Weakness is the place where Christ gives us this grace, as Saint Paul exemplifies in our second reading today. Weakness is the place where we don’t forget, as Jacob didn’t forget.
I conclude gratefully with a story about one of those people through whom God has not let me forget the truth of the grace of weakness in priestly ministry. Some of you might remember him, Father Baltazar Szarka, “Father B,” who served for many years as the pastor of Saint Francis of Assisi parish in Grapevine.
He was born and raised in Hungary, entered a Cistercian monastery there, was ordained a priest there, survived the Second World War and then was assigned to live in France for further theological studies. While in France, the Communists took over Hungary and shut down the monastery and dispersed and imprisoned the monks. His abbot was able to send word to Father B not to try to return but to find a monastery elsewhere. Providence brought Father B to Texas and to Grapevine where he was assigned temporarily as the pastor of Saint Francis of Assisi parish in 1959 by Bishop Gorman — a temporary assignment in which he served for over 35 years until the mid-1990’s. He was a frequent confessor of mine and of many others. He would consistently give the compassionate penance of praying one Memorare as composed by Saint Bernard, “Remember, Oh Most Gracious Virgin Mary…”
Father B retired from his pastorate and went to live in the Cistercian monastery in Irving after he began to show signs of dementia and when he began not to remember things. Many parishioners would still go to the monastery to see Father B and to consult with him about their problems and to seek his pastoral care. He would listen and counsel them to pray the Memorare as composed by St. Bernard, “Remember, Oh Most Gracious Virgin Mary…”
His health soon worsened to the point where he could no longer receive appropriate care and attention in the monastery and it was required that he live in a full-time care facility with daily visits from the monks and from his former parishioners.
His abbot later shared with me that when he accompanied Father B to the facility and they entered it, they encountered in the hallway a woman who was suffering from dementia and was calling out for help. Father B turned to the abbot and asked, “what is this place?” The abbot told him that it was his new priestly assignment. With that being said, Father B went up to the woman and encouraged her not to be afraid and began to pray the Memorare as composed by St. Bernard, “Remember, Oh Most Gracious Virgin Mary…”
The Greek word for Truth is aletheia. It means not to forget. As priests, we have nothing to boast in but our weakness. It is in that weakness that we receive the grace of not forgetting that our vocation is a gift to live at the hand of God — who is not so much the truth which we grab and cling to as much as the Truth that holds us and uses us as instruments for the salvation of souls. He is the truth that does not forget us even more than He is the truth that we don’t forget.
I join with you, especially my brother priests, at the altar in thanking God for our shared vocation that is an unearned grace offered to us in our struggle not to forget. I renew my efforts with each and all of you in gratefully responding to this grace, the grace that is wrapped in the struggle with the truth so clearly needed today in the darkness of our culture that prefers the squandering of the complacent entitlement of Esau to the graced, gradual, and hard-fought conversion of Jacob. Finally, as we thank God in the sacrifice of this Mass, in the way that He desires to be thanked, let’s boast together only in our weakness that is made manifest in our contending with God on behalf of His people in a contest that God started through calling us to serve Him as His priests.