Homily for Mass with Seminarians

18 Aug 2015

Good Shepherd Seminary, Homebush

We’ve all seen the ads for Lotto in which average punters are tantalized with offers of obscene amounts of money. In one a devoted father is shown giving his pregnant daughter and son-in-law a mortgage-free property. In another a man’s newly acquired wealth takes him around the world to experience unimagined freedom and pleasures.

What would you do with the Lotto prize or a genie’s wish? Many would say: comfort, security, and a day-dream or two fulfilled such as travel to exotic locales, a mansion, early retirement and no more boss. For a seminarian that might translate as: being PP of the parish and presbytery of your choice, travel to exotic locations like Austral and the Shire, retirement at 74 instead of 75, and an extended period with no bishop…

Of course, some people give nobler answers: they want comfort and security for a struggling child, a stronger marriage and family life and to make a difference in our world rather than getting their own way in everything. For the seminarian that translates as: wanting nothing more than to be good seminarian now and a good priest later; to provide spiritual comfort and security to a flock rather than self; and to invest time, energy and self in worthy works mandated by your bishop!

The Gospels say to us time and again: self-sufficiency is an illusion and security never achieved by being directly sought. Winning the Lotto can be a poisoned chalice: families and friends turn on each other in greed and jealousy; huge sums are quickly squandered on lavish and unsustainable lifestyles; the winners end up worse off than before. “It’s so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus observes. “Like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle!” In the museum of exegetical curios there have probably been more attempts to explain this verse away than almost any other. So here’s another…

First, the goods of the earth are good. Catholics don’t fear wealth and commerce, blood and friendship, as if contact with this world inevitably contaminates us. Diocesan priests are not called to be cenobites withdrawn from this world – quite the opposite – and so rightly have modest stipends, presbyteries, cars and diversions. Jesus doesn’t say in today’s Gospel: “Yep, it’s no families, houses and businesses for you guys – now suffer…” No, He says, “Give ‘em up and you’ll get them back a hundredfold: you’ll have more parents, wives and children in your flock than you can poke a stick at. More presbyteries to live in and parishioners’ homes to visit than you can cover. There’ll be jobs galore for you, if I know that bishop of yours.” So people, homes and the rest aren’t bad things on Jesus’ account. Come the New Heavens and the New Earth there will be no more poverty, insecurity or tears. The Lotto ads get that much right!

Secondly, before you think “Thank God those hard teachings are for religious, not for me: I’m for the comfortable life, thank-you very much” beware! I remember a layman once reciting to me the adage that clergy and religious promise poverty and the laity keep it. He mused, tongue-in-cheek, about how nice it would be only to have to work one hour a day, by saying a quick Mass before retreating to a large and comfortable presbytery to tea and newspapers for the rest of the morning, followed by a three course house-keeper-cooked lunch, then siesta, some internet surfing, the occasional direction to parish staff or evening meeting, the only really sacrosanct thing being the weekly day off. If even the Speaker of the Parliament, with a fine name like Bishop, can lose office for over-indulging herself at the public expense, we clergy and seminarians should also be wary of the culture of entitlement!

Thirdly, even for lay people, of course, wealth has its dangers. Possessions can possess us. This world’s resources are intended for the needs of all. The Gospel calls us all to detachment, dispossession and trust; to letting go of the fantasies and crutches; to redistributing at least what is surplus to our needs and perhaps like the widow with her mite, rather more; to building a just world in which no-one starves.

The recent encyclical, Laudato Si, is in this ascetical tradition. The Holy Father calls us to open heart and generous hands like Jesus, to give up of some of the comfort and control. So at ordination you guys might not promise poverty like a religious, but you will promise obedience. Religious have a whole spirituality around that, but diocesans are never sure what it means anything apart from that the bishop is diocesan personnel manager and so to be resisted. I’ve had priests say to me, when I’ve suggested it might be time for a move, that if you move me the parish will fall apart and I’ll retire. Whatever of priestly promises of obedience, such stubborn immovability is not the dispossession Christ calls us to.

Earlier this year, when I buried Fr Ron Harden, I recalled that he was the kind of priest who never wanted more in his bank account than his parishioners had. If one lost his job and was at risk of losing the family house, he’d offer his own money to help out. He pre-paid the funeral costs of a lonely woman in housing commissionaccommodation. He renovated his family home to allow poor seamstresses somewhere to live as they aged. Father Ronnie was a model of generosity if not always of prudence.

Finally, Peter was still a seminarian in the sense of a cleric-to-be when he asked plaintively today: well what about us, Lord? I recently wrote to our older priests to reassure them they would be well cared for in their twilight years. That won’t concern most of you for a good while yet. What should matter to you is Jesus’ promise of providence. God knows what you are really sacrificing for Him. He knows and values that sacrifice and will not forget it, Jesus says. Ultimately you’ll be rewarded with more than the Lotto. You’ll come to know the infinite mercy of the One who is rich in mercy. And with knowing Him comes something better than wealth and houses: eternal life for you and all those you draw to Him!