A friend had an interesting homily shared on his parish web site this past week. ("Thanks, Father Gene!") It made me think a great deal about the title of this post, "What is Church."
As a parish priest, this answer quickly transformed in my own mind into the life of the Church, as experienced in our parishes. I remember when Bishop O'Connell mentioned to me that he was considering assigning me as a pastor, my first thought was, "Oh, no! I'd rather not!" (Of course these were silent thoughts, as I made the promise to God in 2013, when I entered the seminary, to go anywhere and take any assignment that Bishop O'Connell or his successors asked of me.)
My second thought reached into my academic inclinations, and I pulled out the Code of Canon Law, and read about what it means to be a pastor. Hardly an action of questioning my Bishop's wisdom, but more an action of wanting to prepare myself as best I could to serve the people wherever my assignment might take me. While canons 528-530 outline the responsibilities of pastors, Canon 771 uses the wonderful phrase, "pastor of souls." I liked that description when I read it years ago, and smiled again when I read it again in 2017. It reminded me of the phrase I embraced when studying spiritual direction, what the Irish monks called "soul friends."
Pastors are called to be shepherds, managers, servants, priests, maintenance men, writers, mentors, editors, marketers, scholars, laborers, friends, adversaries, coaches, cooks, delivery men, first responders, advocates, teachers, disciplinarians, landscapers, ... oh, yes, and to pray as well.
And this helps us understand "Church" as "parish," and "pastor" as "dispenser of the Mysteries of God" for all those we serve. This is a job that I love. Every day I know how blessed I am to play this role in the lives of my parishioners. These daily tasks enable me to each day know that I am getting away with something! I get to serve God, through His people, every day ... to be a priest is a profound blessing in my life, every day.
And yet we serve in troubled times; St. Peter wrote, "Now who is going to harm you if you are enthusiastic for what is good? But even if you should suffer because of righteousness, blessed are you. Do not be afraid or terrified with fear of them, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope."
So here is my reason for hope, for joyful hope in our Church, in our Diocese, for our parish, for my ministry as your parish priest:
• I get to baptize your children and grandchildren. I do this with you, often at our weekend Masses, so that our parish community celebrates together the next step in the fragile lives of these smallest of God's children, to share our hope and joy for the faith that will be shared with them by their parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors, from the people who join them in the pews each week, and who smile when your children squirm, cry, and sometimes run out into the aisle. (I always laugh - at least inside - when I see parents "sneak" up the aisle to retrieve them, wishing they were invisible.) I get to participate in this grace, as the hope for their children blesses each parent.
• I get to celebrate the marriages of your children and grandchildren. I meet the most amazing young people, spend a year or more entering into their lives of faith and love, joining with their parents who have spent decades sharing their own faith with their sons and daughters. I get to befriend these young adults whose lives often transform over our time together, from a "memorized" faith to a prayerful relationship with Jesus. I get to witness the unfolding of God's hope and dreams for each couple as they become one in Christ Jesus.
• I get to walk with parents and grandparents as illness enters into your lives with the Sacrament of the Sick. So often, I find myself the only person in your home, or hospital bedside, who is not family; I am graced by your tears, and witness tenderness and love that can only be revealed when wrapped in grief. And I get to speak with you and your loved ones, as you are dying. Through the powerful grace of God, I get to stand in persona Christi as we pray together about eternal life, and as I ask you, moments before you die, to pray for me when you enter the blessed realm of Eternal Life. I get to see first-hand my own faith and belief in God, my hope for growth in holiness that leads to Heaven unfold before me, in your life and death.
• I get to serve you and Jesus Christ as a vehicle for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. In the words of this sacrament, "Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace." Pardon, as Jesus commanded through His instruction to Peter to bind and loose on earth, and to invite God's peace to transform lives from fear to love, from darkness to life, to reflect once again God's dream for each person made in His image and likeness. I get to draw from the image of Simon of Cyrene, to help God's sons and daughters carry their crosses, and often, to leave their burdens of brokenness behind as lives are wrapped in the mercy and love of Jesus from Gethsemane and Calvary, moving from pain and hopelessness to hope and joy.
• I get to break open the Word of God in our corner of the Church, in our town, in our parish for you, for your children, for your parents, friends, and for strangers. The words of the prophets, the Divine Revelation of Jesus Christ, the preaching of the Apostles all become light and life in our present day. Each Liturgy of the Word, each Bible study class, each retreat day, each evening of recollection, each religious education class visit become a chance to share the hope and challenge of the Word of God with His chosen people, those entrusted to my pastoral care.
• I get to receive from you simple bread and wine, and to ask the Holy Spirit to transform what we see into what we believe, for you, your family and friends. St. Augustine held that simple host before his parishioners and proclaimed, "Receive what you are!" With feelings of awe, of weakness, of total inadequacy, I share with you what Jesus promised to each of us when He instructed us through His Apostles, this is my Body, this is my Blood; take and eat; do this in memory of Me. For you, my parishioners, I touch the transcendent reality of God, offered as food to lead us from emptiness to unlimited hope, from broken bread to the unity of life in Jesus Christ.
• I get to become your soul friend, to offer spiritual advice along this pilgrim road we share together. Whether in one-on-one spiritual direction, or Backyard Theology sessions, whether teaching children, young adults, young parents, or senior citizens, as your priest I challenge you to discover Jesus' dream for your future, to encounter God in new and different ways. Each encounter allows you to be Christ to me, and me to be Christ to you; with the union of praying together, we mysteriously participate in the work of the Body of Christ. You help me to find God in all things, in all people, and to be surprised by what God has you say to me, and what He has me say to you. In your trust of me as your priest, I encounter more fully the hope that mirrors God, who is Love.
I could do none of this without you, but every day get to encounter God with you. Peter said, "Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope."
Faith. Hope. Love.
Because of my faith in God, you are my reason for hope; you are my reason for joy. Thank you for letting me serve you; thank you for praying for me, and for all those who serve faithfully as parish priests.