Saturday, April 28, 2012

An Easy Game and a Hard Road

The last keyword that I should like to consider is “zeal for souls”: animarum zelus. It is an old-fashioned expression, not much used these days. In some circles, the word “soul” is virtually banned because – ostensibly – it expresses a body-soul dualism that wrongly compartmentalizes the human being. Of course the human person is a unity, destined for eternity as body and soul. And yet that cannot mean that we no longer have a soul, a constituent principle guaranteeing our unity in this life and beyond earthly death.

And as priests, of course, we are concerned for the whole person, including his or her physical needs – we care for the hungry, the sick, the homeless. And yet we are concerned not only with the body, but also with the needs of the soul: with those who suffer from the violation of their rights or from destroyed love, with those unable to perceive the truth, those who suffer for lack of truth and love. We are concerned with the salvation of men and women in body and soul.

And as priests of Jesus Christ we carry out our task with enthusiasm. No one should ever have the impression that we work conscientiously when on duty, but before and after hours we belong only to ourselves. A priest never belongs to himself. People must sense our zeal, through which we bear credible witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Let us ask the Lord to fill us with joy in his message, so that we may serve his truth and his love with joyful zeal. Amen.

Homily, Chrism Mass, 2012

Reflection – And so the Pope, as he wraps up the Chrism Mass homily, calls his brother priests to this very high standard: the zeal for souls that is to consume us and make us lay down our lives for Christ, his Gospel, and his people.

Well, you know, I know, and the Pope knows that we priests are a pretty ordinary bunch of guys for the most part. And, as a bunch of ordinary guys, some of us work harder, some of us less, some of us (seem to) care more, some less, some are bursting with enthusiasm and energy, some lag. Just the ordinary range of human virtue and weakness, capacity and incapacity, sprinkled here and there with genuine examples of holiness and supernatural virtue and love.

One of the great temptations of Catholics, I have noticed over my years as one, is to find faults with whatever priests one has been given. Let’s face it, it’s an easy game to play. It’s not exactly “Where’s Waldo?” Most priests have pretty glaring flaws, one way or another.

But we (and, yes, I do mean ‘we’ – once you’re ordained it’s not like that particular habit stops), need to ask ourselves why we do that. For that matter, why do we criticize anybody? Why this delight in finding faults, in tearing down, in pointing fingers?

Every one of us, priest or lay, is called to a very high standard of Gospel love and zeal. Every baptized Christian is called to ascend a very steep and high mountain, a path filled with perilous cliffs and dizzying heights. Is it to be wondered that all of us stumble, hesitate, turn back, falter on this path?

Are priests called to an even higher ascent? I’m not so sure about that (holiness is holiness, after all). Certainly our ministry makes us more visible, more prone, therefore, to the critical view of others.

But why do we criticize? Why not… oh, I don’t know, pray? Or… help one another? Pray for your priests. If you don’t see the zeal for souls you would like to see in them, pray for them. If they are not preaching the Gospel as you would like it preached, pray for them. If they seem to you to be living lives not in accordance with the way of Christ, pray for them.

And be a friend to your priests. It can be a lonely life, and is getting more so as the numbers diminish and the responsibilities increase. Help them. Have them over for supper. If you can help in the parish, do so. If you can’t, find some other way of expressing your support and care.

And pray for us. The priesthood is a wonderful vocation, a rich rewarding joyous way of life. But it is challenging, as is any real commitment to Christ and the Gospel. Let’s help one another to do it, and not tear each other down with judgment and criticism and gossip. Sound good to you? It sounds good to me.