Note: The following homily was preached on June 18, 2020 for the Seminarian Days of the Diocese of Memphis.
If you were to die tonight, how would you like your obituary to read? What would you want the epitaph on your tombstone to say? That’s essentially what you heard in today’s First Reading – Sirach’s encomium for Elijah the prophet and his “understudy,” Elisha. He tells us that Elijah was an “awesome” man of “zeal,” “whose words were as a flaming furnace” and who “turn[ed] back the hearts of fathers toward their sons.” His modus vivendi was so captivating that the young Elisha, before Elijah’s ascension, would beg for – and receive – “a double portion of [his] spirit” (2 Kings 2:9). We see something similar, mutatis mutandis, as the venerable priest Eli trains his “altar boy” Samuel in the ways of holy worship (see 1 Samuel 3). Authentic and integral living is attractive – and contagious. Fathers beget sons; masters beget disciples – precisely so that sons become fathers and disciples become masters.
Upon sacred ordination, we are configured to Christ in a new manner, so that we are deputed to exercise the tria munera of His as prophet, king, and priest: to teach, to govern, and to sanctify. Let’s consider the vocation of the prophet as it applies to the life of the priest.
The word “prophet” comes from the Greek, prophemi, which means “to speak forth.” When most people hear “prophet,” they tend to think of Madame Zelda on the Atlantic City boardwalk, but no, the biblical prophet was not so much a “fore-teller” as a “forth-teller,” charged with making the divine agenda the human agenda. He was acutely aware – even painfully aware – of his divine commission to be “the conscience of Israel” (as Father Bruce Vawter puts in his eponymous book on biblical prophecy). While one might think that there is a certain glory to being God’s spokesman, the biblical prophets had a much more realistic view of the vocation; indeed, there was no long waiting list of applicants for the role. They knew that if they were faithful to their call, they could expect marginalization, unpopularity, rejection, misunderstanding and loneliness. Let’s not forget: All the prophets were persecuted, and not a few of them were killed.
Why so? There were some prophets in ancient Judaism who were very popular – the “professional” court prophets, who told kings and people alike what they wanted to hear, but they were not true prophets; in reality, they were little more than prostitutes. The Venerable Fulton Sheen was once asked how a priest could become a popular preacher. In witty but biting fashion, he replied: “Preach against the sins your people never commit!” How many times as I have stood at the door of the church glad-handing people as they left have I gotten this comment: “Boy, you sure told them, Father!” In such moments, I knew that I had failed.
There was a set, predictable pattern to prophetic utterance: God is not pleased with you; change your lives and turn from sin; if you don’t, both personal and national disaster will ensue; if and when that change does occur, redemption and salvation will be experienced because our God always stands ready to forgive. The prophets were deeply offended by infidelity to the God of the Covenant and spoke in graphic, forceful language; they had exceedingly high standards for themselves and everyone else and were revolted by mediocrity; they consistently challenged the merely apparently or seemingly holy. They held in perfect equilibrium divine wrath and divine love – not an easy thing to accomplish.
Of course, what we are really talking about here is the exercise of leadership. The lament of Daniel could be writ large for our times: “We have in our day no prince, prophet or leader” (3:23). In fact, someone like Barak Obama in his book’s title could even canonize the absurd notion of “leading from behind.” On the other hand, St. Paul could ask what he deemed a rhetorical question: “And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle? (1 Cor 14:8). When leaders abdicate; when mixed signals are given; when phony and inane consultation processes are employed – either chaos or mob rule is the result, both of which have inundated the Church in the past half-century.
Now, don’t get me wrong, Gentlemen. I am not advocating ecclesial governance through the establishment of a dictatorship, even a benign one. No. I am talking about having a clear vision, sharing it in a clear manner, and bringing others onboard, personally and communally. It drives me absolutely wild when I hear a new pastor or bishop declare, “I have no plan. I am here to listen and to learn.” How ludicrous or even disingenuous. Could you imagine if the new CEO of IBM made such an announcement at his first press conference? The board of directors would be called into executive session forthwith and fire the poor thing.
What accounts for the kind of confidence I am describing? Jeremiah had a profound sense of vocation: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations” (Jer 1:5). Or, consider Isaiah: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here am I! Send me’” (Is 6:8). A call and response which, interestingly, takes place within the context of a magnificent Temple liturgy.
Called to do what, though? To prophesy over dead, dry bones. That vision of Ezekiel (37:1-14) gave us a Negro spiritual and would make for great cinema. Think back on the scene.
Ezekiel is confronted with a vision of a field of dry, dead bones and commanded to prophesy over them, so as to bring them back to life. Isn’t that the situation in which we find ourselves in the secularized West? Unfortunately, like the Chosen People of old, most of our contemporaries don’t realize that they are dead and that the culture is moribund. It is our task to demonstrate to them just how lifeless the whole culture is. Were it otherwise, how would one explain the vast array of children with learning disabilities of every kind; the couches of psychiatrists constantly filled; the suicide rate (especially among the young) the highest in our history? Too often, we priests have been intimidated into silence in the face of what is in reality an “anti-culture,” lest we appear “out of it” or “uncool.”
Back in the silly – and stupid – sixties, we were told that if we could shake off the shackles of religion and morality, we would experience true and complete happiness. Religion, we heard, was an albatross, an inhibition, an obstacle to human fulfillment. Well, the shackles were certainly removed, and the result has been a disaster. With the depressing signs all around us, we are in an ideal position to be educators, in the root Latin sense of the word, “educere,” to lead out – leading our people out of the misery and shackles of a godless modernity. We must convince them – being convinced first of all ourselves – of the truth put forth so powerfully by Pope Benedict XVI in his inaugural homily:
If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation.
That, my friends, is our holy vocation, our noble calling – to preach by word and to teach by example those committed to our care that in following Christ and His Church, we lose nothing that is “free, beautiful and great” – and gain much more besides.
Sometimes we shall be called upon to exhibit “tough love,” speaking the truth very bluntly. Do you recollect how St. Paul chides the Galatians as being “stupid” (3:1-4)? Tough language, no doubt. Today Paul would be called “harsh, rigid and insensitive.” However, when eternal life is at stake, we can’t be timid about challenging someone to change course. This is not simply a matter of truth-telling; it is the ultimate act of Christian charity. With great frustration in his voice, Paul asks if all his efforts and their initial positive response have been “in vain.” Here we have a key pastoral lesson: Never be afraid to speak the truth of Christ. Just be sure that it is done out of love and in a loving way. Paul also has some strong encouragement for his son in the priesthood, Timothy: “Let no one despise your youth” (1 Tim 4:12)
In the present pontificate, we have heard much about the process of “accompaniment,” which is surely important. Accompaniment, however, does not mean silence in the face of bad or misguided thoughts or behavior. The former Cardinal Ratzinger had some very harsh words for bishops (and by extension, other clerics) who simply avoid conflicts, under the guise of being “prudent.” He says:
The words of the Bible and of the Church Fathers rang in my ears, those sharp condemnations of shepherds who are like mute dogs; in order to avoid conflicts, they let the poison spread. Peace is not the first civic duty, and a bishop whose only concern is not to have any problems and to gloss over as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive.1
Ironically, in my experience, a policy of conflict avoidance involves one in many more conflicts, with the Gospel usually on the losing end. On the contrary, genuine accompaniment means providing guidance and direction. Anything less is pastoral nonfeasance or malfeasance.
The finest example of holy accompaniment is found in the charming and moving Emmaus pericope (Lk 24). Those two confused disciples thought they had the story of Jesus clear, but they were wrong. The Risen Lord “accompanies” them along the road by explaining to them all the passages of Sacred Scripture that pertain to His passion, death, and resurrection. He corrects their misunderstanding and brings them to the truth, which must be the goal of all accompaniment.
Truth be told, the fundamental problem is that while priestly formation ought to be raising up shepherds, the process often turns out sheep, afraid of their own shadow, terrified of expressing an opinion. One seminary actually has an unofficial maxim to solidify the attitude: “Keep your mouth shut until the stole hangs straight!” A wholesome formation program should encourage young men to express their opinions, if for no other reason than that they learn to have their opinions either corrected or reinforced.
The majority goal of most seminaries, however, seems to be the production of men who are “nice.” Some years ago, a man spoke to me about his new parish priest. “He’s a nice man, Father. In fact, he may even be a holy man, but he’s just got no fire in his belly!” “Fire in the belly.” That’s a down-home way of talking about the prophetic charism. Stalin once remarked that if he had seven men like Francis of Assisi he was confident he could conquer the world for Marxism in one year. The mediocrity of the clergy of Cardinal Newman’s time bothered him greatly.2 Let’s allow none other than the anti-clericalist Jean-Jacques Rousseau to speak a word on this:
Leave those vain moralists, my friend, and return to the depth of your soul. That is where you will always rediscover the source of that sacred fire which so often inflamed us with love of the sublime virtues; that is where you will see the eternal image of true beauty, the contemplation of which inspires us with a holy enthusiasm.3
“Sacred fire” and “holy enthusiasm”; Jeremiah could not have said it better.
As an acid test of what I have been proposing, consider these scenarios:
• How many priests challenge the priorities of parents who prefer a winter vacation or 700 cable channels to the Catholic schooling of their children?
• When did you last hear a homily even remotely hinting at Hell as a viable final destination?
• Do you know a priest willing to offer fraternal correction to one of the brethren whose lifestyle is unpriestly and scandalous?
• Can you name a single priest preaching to the 35% of Catholics who at least go to Sunday Mass, who asks them if anyone outside the church walls knows them to be Catholic, precisely because they live no differently from the rest of the pagans in our culture?
• The Pew study revealed that fewer than 30% of Catholics who receive Holy Communion every Sunday do not hold to a genuine Eucharistic faith. Do you know any priests who have been shocked into reality by that data and have made liturgical changes to reinforce the Catholic doctrine of the Blessed Sacrament?
• Do you have a reasonable hope to hear a homily this fall teaching people that abortion is exactly what the U.S. bishops have said it is, the “preeminent” issue, which must influence the way they need to vote according to an informed Catholic conscience?
• Did you hear a single cleric even suggest that there well could be some element of divine judgment in the Corona pandemic?
Enough of me. Let me leave you with a few salient thoughts on the prophetic ministry from St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, who lived that vocation to the full. In 1831, he declared:
But men are not easily wrought upon to be faithful advocates of any cause. Not only is the multitude fickle: but the best men, unless urged, tutored, disciplined to their work, give way; untrained nature has no principles. . . . It is plain every great change is effected by the few, not by the many; by the resolute, undaunted, zealous few. . . . Doubtless, much may be undone by the many, but nothing is done except by those who are specially trained for action.4
Or how about this from his lips in 1832?
A few highly-endowed men will rescue the world for centuries to come.5
The Venerable Fulton Sheen was fond of this poem from the nineteenth-century Englishman, Charles Mackay; it’s called “No Enemies” and I think it sums up admirably what a prophet can reasonably expect:
You have no enemies, you say?
Alas! my friend, the boast is poor;
He who has mingled in the fray
Of duty, that the brave endure,
Must have made foes! If you have none,
Small is the work that you have done.
You’ve hit no traitor on the hip,
You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip,
You’ve never turned the wrong to right,
You’ve been a coward in the fight.
Gentlemen, before you get to the altar, latch onto a priest who is as bold and courageous and zealous as Elijah. And then, you – like Elisha – grab onto his mantle and beg for a double portion of his spirit.
1Salt of the Earth (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), 82.
2See: Apologia pro Vita Sua, 46.
3La Nouvelle Héloise (1761; ed. M. Launay, 1967), Part 2, Letter 11.
4PPS I, 22, “Witnesses of the Resurrection” (24.4.1831).
5OUS 5, “Personal Influence, the Means of Propagating the Truth (22.1.1832).
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