by Msgr. Joseph P. Calise
THE READINGS of today’s liturgy are not the readings I would have chosen for Vocation Awareness Sunday. I would probably have opted for something with a softer, gentler invitation to consider Christ’s invitation to follow Him with a promise of divine assistance. However, the readings do present an appropriate message for today – a challenge to the ordained that contains within it a call to reflection for those seeking their God-centered path in life.
In the first reading from the prophet Malachi, the Lord lambasts those priests who have “turned aside from the way and caused many to falter” because they have made void the covenant and therefore, are to be made ”contemptible and base before all the people.” In his Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul writes about the toil and drudgery that cause him to work day and night.
In the Gospel, Jesus tells the crowds to listen to what their priests are telling them, but not to follow their example because they preach but do not practice, lay burdens on others they will not carry themselves and seek personal honor. Although each presents a distortion of the image of the ideal priest, it is not hard to think of examples of these behaviors in priests I have met and admittedly, in myself.
I can think of priests who use the pulpit to preach personal opinion rather than Church teachings; conversations about how hard we work – hopefully we are working hard – often do not acknowledge the daily efforts of most of today’s workforce; and examples of priests who seek personal gain, comfort and popularity rather than God’s glory are painfully apparent to parishioners who struggle to meet the responsibilities of their day-to-day lives. Pope Francis calls priests to smell like the sheep, not avoid them because the smell might rub off.
As tempting as it is to continue on a soapbox tirade, the challenge of the Scriptures to me – and to the priestly fraternity – is to look within. Have I been that priest whose attitude turned others away because I put myself before Christ? Do I present ministry as a cross to bear, a hurdle to get over? Simply put, do I live my ministry in a way that attracts others to consider the priesthood or religious life as a vocation?
Several years ago while I was assigned to be the rector-principal at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, I attended a conference for seminary rectors. During one of the presentations, the speaker began with a simple question: “Are you happy being a priest?” Acknowledging that every life has its ups and downs, we collectively responded “yes.” This affirmation was met with this encouragement: “Then, tell your faces.”
Even happy, confident priests sometimes do not reflect the joy that they feel. Many life vocations are chosen as a result of the inspiration of someone who touched our lives fulfilling that vocation. Good teachers inspire others to teach. Skilled laborers inspire others to want to work with their hands. Charismatic athletes inspire hopefuls to try their best. When we, as priests and religious, look within and find the joy that comes from accepting and doing God’s will, we are challenged to let our demeanor and appearance show that contentment. If we cannot find that joy, we are challenged to find the source of our discontent through prayer and spiritual direction, and to seek the necessary healing.
The Scriptures do not call priests to be perfect but to be faithful in the public exercise of our ministry and aware that others look to us for guidance in discerning their Christian vocation, a lifestyle where action speaks louder than words. We are constantly called to grow in holiness from within as we live out our vocations. We were not perfect when we were called and ordained, and will not be perfect when we stand before the Almighty on Judgment Day. In that attestation of human imperfection is the call to reflection for all discerning God’s will. From the Apostles to the clerics of today, Jesus did not call the perfect. When Peter was called, even he told Jesus, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Awareness of our imperfection and unworthiness should not be an impediment to following a vocation in the religious or ordained life, but an inspiration to the humility necessary to remember that we serve a power much greater than ourselves. None of us, in ourselves, is worthy of the calls we have received. God’s grace empowers us to do what we can to grow in worthiness – to do what we cannot do alone.
Those of us in ordained life need to be aware of the example we give and the effect that could have on others. Those discerning need to remember that, in following Christ, He chooses the weak and gives us the strength we need.
During this National Vocations Awareness Week, let us pray for those ordained and consecrated to religious life (as we pray for one another) that we may be faithful to the Gospel with which we have been entrusted, and for all discerning God’s call in their lives that they may be confidently open to power of grace.
Readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 1:14b – 2:2b, 8-10
Psalm 131: 1, 2, 3
1 Thessalonians 2: 7b-9, 13
Matthew 23: 1-12
Msgr. Calise is the pastor of St. Stanislaus Kostka and Transfiguration parish, Maspeth.