Do not be afraid: It is I
“Do not be afraid: It is I”
Address at Vocation Discernment Retreat
Seminary of the Good Shepherd, Homebush, 17 April 2015
Thank you Fr Michael for inviting me to contribute to this Vocation Discernment Retreat and to the Seminary for hosting us. Welcome to you all, whatever your stage of discernment. I invite you to open your hearts to God and listen to what He is telling you this weekend.
1. Against the tide, against the grain
The prominent liberal US paper, The Huffington Post, last month published an article: 'Too Pretty to be a Nun.' Its author, Angela Svec, from Illinois, is 27, used to work for cosmetics producer Clinique, and finds fashion inspiration on Pinterest. But now she wants to be a nun and some people are shocked: they say she's too normal, smart and pretty to be a nun. Even some nuns whose orders she has been nibbling at have taken to calling her Angelina Jolie 'V a comparison which I sense she doesn't mind being made!
What might Ange, who is discerning a vocation as a nun, have to say to young men who are discerning whether they are called to the priesthood, especially to the diocesan priesthood, to young men who no-one confused with Angelina Jolie?
The evangelists record that a complete stranger once told Simon the Fisherman to 'Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch'. When he did, the catch was so great the nets broke. Simon fell at the stranger's feet and said 'Leave me Lord, for I am a sinful man' only to be told 'Do not be afraid; from, now on it is men you will catch.' And Simon 'left everything and followed Him.' (Lk 5:4-11). 'Don't be anxious about tomorrow, about life and food and clothing,' He said (Mt 6:25-34 et par; cf. Lk 10:19). He taught them that lesson for three years. Then, on the night before He died, Jesus offered them the Pax of every Mass: 'Peace I leave you; my peace I give to you'K Let not your hearts be distressed, neither let them be afraid.' (Jn 14:27) Then, on the first Easter day, holy women went to His tomb, found it empty and quaked; they fled the scene 'with fear and joy' and then bumped into Jesus who said 'Do not be afraid; go and tell the brethren'K' (Mt 28:10) On meeting the men He again said 'Let not your hearts be troubled' (Lk 24:38). Encountering God in Christ is awesome in both senses of that word and we too can respond with a mixture of joy and fear.
On another occasion, after He'd fed a multitude with fishburgers, the men went boating without Him and got caught in a storm after dark. They were terrified. When the ghostly form of Jesus appeared, walking on the water, things got worse. Then He said, 'Do not be afraid: It is I.' (Jn 6:15-21; cf. Mk 6:45-52; Mt 14:22-33). The 'Do not be afraid' bit we were used to from Jesus. But 'It is I', 'I am', in Hebrew 'Yahweh', this is agoging. Jesus is saying: to encounter Me is to encounter Yahweh, the living God, the God who is and was and will be, the God who is the source of all that is, of is-ness itself (Ex 3:14; cf. Jn 8:58). Whatever your personal anxieties, your storms and darkness 'V I'm not smart enough; I'm too smart or too wilful; I'm not holy enough or I'm too holy; what if I fail; what if they don't want me 'V whatever your fear hear your Easter Lord: 'It's me, so don't be afraid.'
Angela Svec's experience of maybe being called 'V our own experiences of maybe being called 'V evoke similar self-doubts to those experienced by the first Christians. What if I try this and it's not for me: will I just embarrass myself and let others down? Am I just deluding myself? What about my responsibilities to those who have other aspirations for me? Isn't it just too big an ask? Peter, John and the lads had to face those questions many times. Perhaps it's more difficult for us in some ways than it was for them, because we live in a culture of relativism, secularisation, anti-religion, where the voice of God is harder to hear, harder to credit, harder to trust; where it takes courage to say YES when so many say NO; where leaving your boats behind and following Him, leaving your anxieties behind and announcing Him, is so counter-cultural, so setting yourself apart. Even our relatives and friends, even the more religious ones, can be less than supportive, at least to begin with. It takes courage to hear the incomprehension and scorn and persist in giving it a try. It takes courage to entrust our future to a Christ who will take us who knows where. But Jesus is God en-couraging us, giving us courage, include the courage to consider the best and most radical of life choices.
2. Saying YES to who you truly are
Ange has interior longings for God. She wants to make radical vows and live a consecrated life. At one Poor Clares' monastery, there were no mirrors: at first confronting, it became 'incredibly liberating' for her. No longer needing a perfect appearance, she was freed to be herself and to become who God wanted her to be; no longer able to focus so much on herself she was freed to focus more on her neighbour. It was a school in self-forgetfulness and other-mindedness that is at the heart of every genuine vocation.
Raised in a good Catholic home, Ange expected she would marry the dream husband in the dream wedding ceremony and raise a dream family with him in a dream home. But as she matured and thought and prayed she realised even this dream wasn't enough for her: she wanted more. You might say there have always been people like that. But in another sense her desire for consecrated life is a reaction to some things about modernity. She doesn't want to live a university life 'based on boys and booze'. She wants to keep company with people who share her ideals and to live a life of simplicity and service. And if this vocation is truly hers, if she gives herself generously to it, I have no doubt she will find a happiness that exceeds her dreams.
So does becoming a priest mean wasting our lives, talents, personalities? No: Ange's story, Simon Peter's story, tell us that a vocation is not about denying our gifts and talents but putting them to the best of all uses and bringing them to their fulfilment. Let me tell you another story of fear. A man was going on a trip and so he called his employees and entrusted his business to them. To one he gave five talents to invest, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. When he returned he sought to settle his accounts with them. The guy he'd entrusted with five talents came forward with the five plus five more, for he'd invested wisely. The guy with the two had also made two more. 'Well done, good and faithful servants,' he said to them. 'Faithful in small things, now I'll entrust you with much greater. Enter into the Master's happiness.' But the guy he'd given one talent to came forward, saying, 'Boss man, I'd heard you were a hard man and I was afraid of you, so I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, have it back.' But the businessman answered, 'You wicked, lazy guy! If I was so frightening you should at least have put my money in the bank so I'd get it back with interest. Get out, then, go to outer darkness where there's weeping and gnashing of teeth.' (Mt 25:14-30) You see the fearful or wicked or lazy man is the man who makes less of himself than he could; the wise and generous and courageous man applies himself and his 'talents' to doing great things for God. And this is liberating: being a priest is not about having your temperament and passion thwarted but rather having these things purified and directed for the good of your own soul and those around you.
3. Saying YES to who you could be
How do we know if Christ is calling us to serve Him as priest? Some people think vocational discernment is like solving an extreme Sudoku puzzle or finding buried treasure with an obscure map full of riddles. On that view there's only one right answer, most people fail to work it out, and God the puzzle-maker is happy for most to flop. On that same view you should spend years angsting about it, looking for a certainty you are unlikely to have this side of the grave 'V or at least this side of ordination. And on that view there's an occult quality to vocation: only the specially enlightened or those who've engaged in some exotic process can get it right. But that's the thinking of the one-talented, fearful servant. Don't be that fearful servant, says the Lord, be the happy servant who enters into the joy of His Master.
If discerning a vocation isn't some secret formula, what is it? In my view it is about providence 'V about the union between eternity and time, between God's plan and our lives. So like any other matter of faith, it requires prayer, the sacraments, spiritual counsel. And like any other matter of reason, it requires hard thinking and good advice. We apply faith and reason to this aspect of providence as we would to any other.
It's not rocket science, but doesn't mean it's straightforward either. Some people are obviously made for one thing or another, and they are blessed with knowing that with some clarity and serenity, even quite early; others take longer or realize that there are several paths they could take and still be happy and holy. Even those whose vocation is clear may have many ups and downs along way, find that life takes unexpected turns and still have various sub-decisions to make. An American guy named Tom was waiting for God to reveal to him what he would be. He tried Evangelical Protestantism; he tried Communism; he studied all sorts of subjects; he even fathered a kid out of wedlock. Then out of the blue at age 23, he underwent a profound conversion, was baptised Catholic, and entered a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. He ended up as one of the most brilliant and influential spiritual writers of the twentieth century: Thomas Merton.
Whether it's revealed to us slowly or suddenly or a bit of both, God clearly wants us to know a way to Him. Far from being an anxiety-ridden contest like MasterChef or My Kitchen Rules with secret challenges, pressure tests, immunities and eliminations, all God asks is that we open our hearts and minds to His will, try our best to understand it, and then embrace it with passion and be ready for the spiritual adventure'K
Priesthood is the 'king of vocations'. To say this is not to put down other vocations. But priesthood is the greatest for three simple reasons:
' Its starting point is God: He sent Jesus Christ as the unique saviour-priest and transmits that priesthood to mere mortals through the Church
' Its goal is also God: the priest is like a metal rod magnetically drawn to God, that becomes magnetized by touching God and in turn draws others
' Its means are also God: the priest thinks with heart of Christ and mind of the Church, speaks the Word of God and teachings of the Church, extends the healing hand of Christ through the mission of the Church.
So the purposes of the priesthood are the greatest, its activities the most awesome, and its life the most fulfilling. Being a priest is literally the greatest thing a human being can do or God does in human beings.
Does that mean everyone should be a priest? Certainly not. As Blessed John Henry Newman once said, we priests would look pretty silly if there were no congregation! What's more, the priesthood wouldn't exist if there weren't parents bringing us into being or if there weren't a community to support us or if there weren't lay collaborators taking the Church to the places priests can't. The Church certainly recognizes many different vocations'K
Whether it's about little questions like what to do with the $60 in my pocket or big ones like what to do with the next 60 years of my life, I have to think through upsides and downsides of my options, what is morally possible and best, what fits my talents and ideals, what is personally attractive or repellent, what fits with and makes sense of rest of my life-story, the autobiography I am writing with God. Given how important this decision is, I take advice from wise people, especially ones who know me; I share my thoughts with a spiritual person like a priest; I pray and bring my questions to God in the Eucharist and Confession; I read and think and finally I decide to give it a go. The purpose of practical reasoning and discernment is not to do more thinking and discerning; it is not even to work out what to do next. No, the purpose of practical reasoning and discernment is actually to do what I should do next. Some young people spend their whole lives not deciding: they join the Order of Perpetual Discerners and delay committing to anything until it is too late. Life passes them by'K
4. The courage to be great
Ten years ago this month, St John Paul II died. His first public words as pope were 'Be not be afraid'. His last public words were in a letter to Priests written earlier in the year for publication on Holy Thursday 2005. Already dying, He talked about how the words of consecration at the centre of Mass, which the priest speaks in persona Christi, in place of Christ, should shape his soul and life.
'Tibi gratias agens benedixit': 'On the day before He was to suffer, Jesus took bread'K and giving thanks He said the blessing'. How on earth could we adequately thank God for our lives and selves, for salvation from Sin, Death and the Devil? What on earth could we offer by way of adequate praise to the God who has everything?! Thankfully, 'in the Eucharist Jesus thanks the Father with us and for us'. Priests are the Thank-you people, constantly standing at the altar of behalf of humanity giving thanks for what we have received. Of course, we have our crosses too, and our people sometimes suffer terrible things, and we bring those to the altar too; but we do all with a sense of awe and gratitude. So you should pray regularly in thanks for what you've been given, your gifts and opportunities, asking the Holy Spirit for wisdom and cultivating a spirituality of awe and praise as priests must.
'Accipite et manducate'K Accipite et bibite': take this and eat of it; take this and drink from it. The life of Trinity is one of constant giving and receiving, the Father pouring Himself out into the Son, the Son a chalice receiving His being from the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeding from their mutual giving and receiving; then the Son, emptying Himself to assume a human nature, a human life and death and resurrection, and extending that saving life and death and resurrection in the sacraments. In uttering the words of consecration the priest is caught up in this spiritual movement of giving and receiving and gives himself with the elements to be transubstantiated, sacrificed, consumed. The priest offers 'himself as a gift, placing himself at the disposal of the community and at the service of anyone in need'. You too must receive what God offers in Word and Sacrament and then give, generously, courageously. Pray for and cultivate that self-gift in you.
'Hoc est enim corpus meum': this is my body which will be given up for you; this is my blood which will be poured out for you and for many. Christ suffers and the priest serves not for God's sake 'V for God has no needs 'V but for man's sake and God's will for man: the 'body and blood of Christ are given for the salvation of man, of the whole man and of all men'. But if the priest is to include as many as possible in this saving work, he must open wide the arms of the Church, preach the truth in the Spirit of Truth, and offer the example of holiness and self-sacrifice himself. So you must receive the gift of the Eucharist often yourself and be ready to offer it to others if you are so privileged in future by being self-sacrificing even now.
'Hoc facite in meam commemorationem': Do this in memory of me. Our world has amnesia. Amidst rapid change, we have little sense of history, inheritance, genealogy. Or we flail about trying to recapture some historical romance. Some people imagine memory is a constraint on creativity, history a restriction on the future. But those who lack a sense of the past are doomed to repeat the worst from it; they lack a sense of their own identity and so of the possibilities open to them; rootless, they can't extend new branches. People with amnesia are not freer!
At Mass we remember by engaging in anamnesis: a kind of saving memory that makes what we recall sacramentally present now. St John Paul pointed out that 'Through his daily repetition in persona Christi of the words of the memorial, the priest is invited to develop a spirituality of remembrance'K the priest is called to be, within the community entrusted to him, the man who faithfully remembers the entire mystery of Christ'. And so I'd say each of you: be a man who remembers, who recalls his faith, studies it, deepens it, treasures it, so you have something to remember and to share. It's in that context that God's providential plan for you may emerge and clarify itself.
'Mysterium fidei!' Let us proclaim the mystery of faith. Pope John Paul said that 'Every time he proclaims these words after consecrating the bread and wine, the priest expresses his ever-renewed amazement at the extraordinary miracle worked at his hands.' This is a miracle which only eyes of faith can perceive, but which awes, astonishes, shakes us. The greatest thing you can do in this life is to be close to God and man and bring them closer to each other. In so doing a priest brings heaven to earth, divine nature to human nature, ordinary created bread and wine to the Creator's Body and Blood. That's the literally AWESOME possibility God might be calling you to!
On the Sea of Galilee Jesus tells His disciples not to fear. Why not? Because he is with them. Why really not? Because He who is with them is He who is 'V God. Whatever your fears and hopes for the future, know that God is calling you now to be someone awesome for Him and if it is Him calling you, whatever it ios that He is calling you to, you need not be afraid.