Sunday, October 30, 2005

It's frightening & wonderful to be a priest (Sunday homily)

Perhaps Protestant friends
or family members have asked you,
based on this Gospel passage:
“Why do you call priests, ‘Father’?”

I know people ask the question,
so I’ll answer it;
and then move beyond it.

If you look further in Scripture,
you’ll see that St. Paul the Apostle,
and St. Stephen, one of the first deacons,
both used the term “father”
in the way Jesus seems to say not to:
Paul called himself a spiritual father,
and Stephen called his persecutors “father.”

So, they did it—in Scripture!
What’s the fuss?

We still wonder why the Lord
said this startling thing:
Then we realize—that’s why:
to startle us—to get our attention.

I will tell you,
these readings certainly have my attention.

The honors the Lord describes—
a seat of honor,
greetings in the marketplace—
people often do that for me!

People are kind, they often insist.
And, yes, I like it;
and it’s easy to come to expect it.
So it’s good that Jesus
startles me with these words.

I need to remember that
it is not about “Martin Fox,”
but about “Martin Fox the priest.”

Whatever I do,
wherever I go, I’m a priest;
I’m a priest no matter what you call me.

We believe that some of the sacraments
change our fundamental state of being—
who we are at our very core.

Baptism does that:
it fundamentally changes us,
from someone “outside”
to someone united to Christ.

Now, I know, that raises a question:
what about those who aren’t baptized?
The answer is, God has other ways.
He’s commands us;
He doesn’t command himself.

Baptism changes us:
we become part of Christ;
we become “little Christs.”

Confirmation changes us--
we become more like Christ:
With Christ, we say to the Father,
“I’ll do this”;
I’ll accept the mission;
I’ll accept the Cross.

And priesthood changes a man:
he says,
“I’ll be united to Christ on that Cross:
I’ll be the one through whom
Christ offers the Sacrifice;
my life will be his altar;
my voice, my face,
my person, will be His.”

When I’m in the confessional, I say this:
“You could come in here,
alone, and tell God you’re sorry.
And God will forgive you.
I’m here so that
you can see Christ smile at you;
and, through my voice, hear Christ say,
your sins are absolved, and gone forever!”

Did you notice that first reading
singled out priests?
If I don’t listen to Him;
if I fail to give His teachings faithfully:
God says—to me:
“I will send a curse upon you”!

We all know the quote by Dante:
“The road to hell
is paved with good intentions”;
How many know what
St. John Chrysostom said?
“The streets of hell
are paved with the skulls of priests.”

Pray for priests;
pray for our priests here in Piqua.
Please pray for me.

I know you do; I thank you.

Does all this make me
regret being a priest?
not one bit.
Because the grace
of my baptism and confirmation,
made me want to answer his call,
whatever that means!
And any men here thinking about it:
Your full happiness will come
only in answering that call.

But I need these readings’ warnings.
My hope isn’t how smart I might be,
or how pious or holy I might seem to be.
I have to stand before Christ
as I truly am; we all do.

I still remember my very first Mass—
the very first time
I stood at the altar,
I spoke the words of Christ himself,
holding bread, and wine,
and knowing it became—in my hands!—
His Body and Blood.

I looked at the Host;
I looked at the Cup,
and I thought: God have mercy on me!
I get to do this—to be a part of this—
and my life isn’t totally changed?

I know I don’t have enough faith
for that moment;
I know that my response
is utterly inadequate for that reality.

The temptations are real;
I’m not immune to them.

If you’ve heard me stress,
on other occasions,
the power of God’s mercy—this is why!

It’s frightening and yet so wonderful
to be a priest!
Here’s why:

I look out, through my eyes;
I am what I am, Martin Fox.
I see with my prejudices, my impatience;
I see you—looking back:
you’re kind and generous and wonderful.

And then, every once in a while,
it dawns on me—
and there aren’t really words for this—
but I know: I’m seeing you,
through my ordinary self;
but you? You’re seeing Him!


Bernard Brandt said...

As I recall from reading a translation of ha-Aggidah (the books of the traditions of the Jews), it was once asked and answered by a learned rabbi:

Why is Abraham called "father" (Abri, and "the father of the people" (Abriha'am, because he was in fact the father of only two children (Isaac and Ismael), and was the legitimate father of only one (Isaac)?

And the answer which the Rabbis gave was: because it is truly said, that he who brings another into the presence of the living God, it is as though he is truly the father of that one.

That is why you are called "father", sir. Through the mystery of the laying on of hands at your ordination, and through the great mystery of your participation in the changing of bread and wine into the flesh and blood of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, you bring many into the presence of the living God.

Bernard Brandt said...

And the full quotation of St. John Chrysostom, to which you partially allude, is:

"The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, and is lit with the skulls of erring bishops."

To paraphrase the motto of Fox News Channel: "The saints and prophets report; God decides.'

DP said...

It's amazing what God can do through the ministry of his priests, especially as they serve in Persona Christi.

I am so grateful that God humbles himself to come to us through these men. I thank God that there are priests who are eager to see His people transformed in Him through the sacraments and living life in Christ.

Just last week we had a youth ministry event in our archdiocese focusing on the sacrament of reconciliation. Thirty-six priests showed up to hear confessions. What a blessing that was for both the youth and the priests.

Reading your homily made me think of a verse one of my theology profs at university often reminds us of. He frequently points out that "to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required." (In fact, I think this was in the gospel at a weekday mass sometime recently). Anyways, while my theology prof uses this verse to remind us of the increasing responsibility we have as we grow in knowledge and understanding of the Faith, this often reminds me of the priesthood. It seems to speak of the wonderful (much has been given) and of the frightening (much is expected) of the priesthood.

Anyways, perhaps I'm not making sense since I'm tired and it's late. The long and short of it is that I am praying for you and your brother priests on a daily basis, as well as for all young men in seminaries, and for all young people discerning their vocation in life.

Anonymous said...

So many priests today seem to want to downplay the fact that at the Sacrifice of the Mass and in the confessional Christ acts through them.

A priest, who takes pride in not wearing clerical attire, told me recently 'I am no different to any other person'. You know, regarding that priest, I think he is correct unfortunately.

Fr Martin Fox said...


I understand your point, but I would say, gently, that even in the case of the priest you mention -- and any priest you can think of -- the fact remains that there is something different about a priest. Whether that "being different" ends up being better or worse depends on his response to grace.

Whatever you may think of that priest, or any priest, pray for them, assist them any way you can, out of charity and ad maioram gloriam Deum.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a beautiful homily father. It is priest like you that renew my faith in Christ and his bride and fill me with a desire to pray for those priests who are not like you.

Fr. Larry Gearhart said...

Well said, Martin, but one technical comment. St. Paul does refer to Abraham as "father of all of us" (Rom 4:16), and himself as "your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (1 Cor 4:15). Nevertheless, I'm sure St. Paul followed our Lord in emptying himself of titles. And, regarding his own "titles" recall that Jesus said, "You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another's feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do." (John 13:13-15)

The question all of us priests must continually ask ourselves in any given situation is this, "Does the use of this title 'Father' help or get in the way of my ministry here and now?" If it helps, then use it. Don't back away from it out of false humility. If it gets in the way, then drop it. Our job is not to glorify ourselves, but to glorify our Father in heaven.

Certainly, don't insist on it.

DP said...

I don't know, I think it's important that priests maintain the title of Father. I definitely would not feel comfortable calling up the parish office and asking if I could speak with Joe Smith about spiritual direction or when he was available to hear confessions. To be honest, it would probably weird me out if a priest didn't want to be referred to as 'father'. Kind of in the same way that I find it odd when some parents insist that their kids call them by their first name rather than mom or dad (or mommy or daddy...or whatever title is appropriate for their culture). Let us not forget the role of spiritual fathers.