Hello from the Phoenix International Airport. I'm on my way to Oakland for a meeting of our Provincial Council. The parish mission Sherry and I gave in Rancho Palos Verdes at St. John Fisher Catholic Church went very well. Its focus was on the reality that every baptized Christian personally participates in the mission of Christ and His Church through the unique work of love that they are invited to participate in by Jesus. That work is a personal vocation that can be discerned. It's also the shortest route to happiness, satisfaction and meaning in this life, as well as a profound way in which we grow in intimacy with Jesus.
What was interesting about this mission is that we incorporated some brief "testimonies" from lay Catholics who are consciously discerning and living their call. One was a former attorney become teacher and writer, another was an engineer with his own multi-million dollar/year company, a third is a physical therapist with several different companies who wants to change the way health care is approached in this country, and the final example was our own Called & Gifted teacher, Barbara Elliott. We used excerpts from a PBS broadcast that looked at her life, her own spiritual awakening, and the vocation she's pursuing now as the founder and director of a non-profit that helps people transition from jail to jobs.
What was incredible as I listened to these interviews were patterns that I heard. These were 1) that the call was linked to a growing relationship with God 2) that as they looked back over their lives, they see that God has "written straight with crooked lines." That is, their previous experiences helped prepare them for what they're doing now 3) they are currently consciously asking God for guidance and are willing to follow it 4) they are pretty peaceful about the future, even though they are not at all sure where God will take them 5) their vocations are BIG! Much bigger than they are. They speak of helping disseminate God's "inventions" in the world, or changing the world through educated, literate young people, changing health care, giving people a second chance. (Two stories we weren't able to use because of time or poor technology had to do with changing the legal profession and addressing the problem of hunger!) 6) all of the vocations focus on changing lives for the better 7) all of the people I spoke to really enjoy themselves when they are doing what they know they were created to do!
I would love to produce a small library on our website of interviews like this of people who have discovered and are living their call. I found them very inspiring - and as a priest, I recognize that such stories, and the changed lives behind them, are meant to be indications that my vocation is bearing fruit (insofar as my ministry intersects their lives). Not that I'm responsible for their fruitfulness (far from it, except as a secondary cause!). Rather, I see the beauty of the connectedness between the sacraments, preaching and teaching, and pastoral governance (the calling forth, discernment and encouragement of charisms) that are part of my life as a priest, and the lives of these individuals whom I am privileged to know and, I must admit, love.
First solid indicators of the impact of the Sydney World Youth Day in 2008. Only two years later, the number of priestly ordinations and new seminarians is rising. From the Catholic News Agency.
A record number of men are entering seminary for the Archdiocese of Sydney and up to six men will be ordained to the priesthood this coming June, a rise that observers partly attribute to the influence of World Youth Day 2008.
On June 11, between four and six men will be ordained priests by the Archbishop of Sydney Cardinal George Pell. This is the largest number of men ordained into the Archdiocese of Sydney since 1988, the archdiocese reports.
Two Uganda-born men who studied at the Seminary of the Good Shepherd in Homebush, Australia will be ordained in their home country and will return to serve in Australian parishes.
“While Australia has been battling against a shortage of priests since the late 1980s, it now looks as if interest in the priesthood and men seeking priestly vocations is once more on the rise,” the archdiocese said on Friday.
In February, 10 men were accepted as candidates for the priesthood by the Seminary of the Good Shepherd, and they have since begun their first year of study.
"There is no doubt there has been an upsurge in interest in a priestly vocation," said seminary rector Fr. Anthony Percy.
Fr. Percy attributed the trend to World Youth Day 2008 but also to past World Youth Day Events and to the Year for Priests, proclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI in June 2009.
Another sign of vigor in Catholic Australia is Sydney’s Theology on Tap program, which attracts between seven and eight hundred people to P.J. Gallagher’s Irish Pub in Parramatta on the first Monday of each month. They drink, socialize and hear speakers on theology, faith, the Church and life in general.
The numbers above look small to me but when you understand how tiny the number of Latin American seminarians was in 1970 and the average 371% growth in the 40 years since, you know that starting small doesn't mean you have to end small. Mark Shea spoke at that Theology on Tap program last month to 700 enthusiastic people and told me it was a blast.
Here is a brief excerpt from St. Augustine's Soliloquies. Are they prayer, petition, a monologue, or part of an ongoing dialogue? I would imagine the saint himself would reply, "Dialogue, of course." God seems to speak to Augustine through the ubiquitous and easily overlooked simpleness of natural events, as well as the events that unfold from his free choices. Everything speaks to Augustine of God.
I love this glimpse into the passion of the saint for God. May we desire such passion ourselves this Lent!
Whatever has been said by me, Thou the only God, do Thou come to my help, the one true and eternal substance, where is no discord, no confusion, no shifting, no indigence, no death. Where is supreme concord, supreme evidence, supreme steadfastness, supreme fullness, and life supreme. Where nothing is lacking, nothing redundant. Where Begetter and Begotten are one. God, whom all things serve, that serve, to whom is compliant every virtuous soul. By whose laws the poles revolve, the stars fulfill their courses, the sun vivifies the day, the moon tempers the night: and all the framework of things, day after day by vicissitude of light and gloom, month after month by waxings and wanings of the moon, year after year by orderly successions of spring and summer and fall and winter, cycle after cycle by accomplished concurrences of the solar course, and through the mighty orbs of time, folding and refolding upon themselves, as the stars still recur to their first conjunctions, maintains, so far as this merely visible matter allows, the mighty constancy of things. God, by whose ever-during laws the stable motion of shifting things is suffered to feel no perturbation, the thronging course of circling ages is ever recalled anew to the image of immovable quiet: by whose laws the choice of the soul is free, and to the good rewards and to the evil pains are distributed by necessities settled throughout the nature of everything. God, from whom distil even to us all benefits, by whom all evils are withheld from us. God, above whom is nothing, beyond whom is nothing, without whom is nothing. God, under whom is the whole, in whom is the whole, with whom is the whole. Who hast made man after Your image and likeness, which he discovers, who has come to know himself. Hear me, hear me, graciously hear me, my God, my Lord, my King, my Father, my Cause, my Hope, my Wealth, my Honor, my House, my Country, my Health, my Light, my Life. Hear, hear, hear me graciously, in that way, all Your own, which though known to few is to those few known so well.
Henceforth You alone do I love, You alone I follow, You alone I seek, You alone am I prepared to serve, for You alone are Lord by a just title, of Your dominion do I desire to be. Direct, I pray, and command whatever You will, but heal and open my ears, that I may hear Your utterances. Heal and open my eyes, that I may behold Your significations of command. Drive delusion from me, that I may recognize You. Tell me whither I must tend, to behold You, and I hope that I shall do all things You may enjoin. O Lord, most merciful Father receive, I pray, Your fugitive; enough already, surely, have I been punished, long enough have I served Your enemies, whom You have under Your feet, long enough have I been a sport of fallacies. Receive me fleeing from these, Your house-born servant, for did not these receive me, though another Master's, when I was fleeing from You? To You I feel I must return: I knock; may Your door be opened to me; teach me the way to You. Nothing else have I than the will: nothing else do I know than that fleeting and falling things are to be spurned, fixed and everlasting things to be sought. This I do, Father, because this alone I know, but from what quarter to approach You I do not know. Do Thou instruct me, show me, give me my provision for the way. If it is by faith that those find You, who take refuge with You then grant faith: if by virtue, virtue: if by knowledge, knowledge. Augment in me, faith, hope, and charity. O goodness of Yours, singular and most to be admired!<
I mentioned Steve Bigari and America's Family in my homily this weekend in Rancho Palos Verdes, CA. Here's a new (to me) video explaining how a simple, unexpected encounter became a moment of actual grace for Steve. It opened his eyes to a reality to which he had been blind, and became the genesis of his unique, personal mission from God.
I used to shave my head with a single-blade razor, until my dad gave me a high-tech razor with five blades…that vibrate. I work on a 2008 MacBook that I really enjoy. I wouldn’t trade it for anything – except a newer, faster Apple product. When I’m in Colorado Springs, the home office of the CSI, I drive a borrowed 1998 red Mustang ragtop convertible. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, except a 1998 red Mustang ragtop convertible with manual transmission…and snow tires.
Even when we’re happy with the way things are, we’re willing to exchange for something that promises to be better. That reality is the foundation of marketing, as well as the appeal in the TV show “Let’s Make a Deal,” that asked contestants “do you want to keep what you have, or exchange it for what’s behind door #1?”
I think exchanges are the foundation of faith. The three figures highlighted in the readings today are good examples. Abram, a wealthy, but old and childless man from the ancient city of Ur exchanges it all for a long journey to an unknown, yet promised, land and the hope for descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens. Not a bad deal – since it all worked out. His faith in this exchanged is credited to him as righteousness, and God seals the deal by covenant. The split animals were a graphic way of both parties in the agreement saying “may this happen to me if I should break the covenant.”
St. Paul exchanged the life of a respectable Jewish Pharisee to be a disciple of Jesus, and more than a disciple – the missionary to the Gentiles. But in 2 Corinthians he lists the hardships he’s endured: shipwrecks, beatings, robbers, and anxiety for the converts to Christianity. He writes the Philippians from prison, knowing he’s to be a martyr, yet encourages them by saying, “imitate me.” And just before this passage, he told them, I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Philippians 3:8 So he considered that he made a good deal, too, and wants the Philippians to exchange the things of this earth for a relationship with the risen Jesus.
And what of Jesus – what exchange did he make? St. Paul told the Philippians, “though he was in the form of God, Jesus did not deem equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, and took the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” Phil 2:6-7 In the transfiguration event, Peter, James and John are given a glimpse of what Jesus exchanged for their sake, and the Father asks them to make an exchange. Rather than listen to Moses and Elijah, they are now to listen to Jesus, the new Moses and final prophet. But that’s not the only exchange Jesus made. He exchanged his own human will for His Father’s will. He tells his disciples, “I only do what I have heard from my Father.” This obedience will lead him to trouble with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. So much trouble, that, as St. Paul reminds the Philippians, “he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on a cross.” Phil 2:8 And are these good exchanges – or should Jesus have chosen what was behind door #2?
Again, St. Paul says, “Because of this God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name above every other name.” But more than honor, Jesus’ obedience is accepted by the Father who makes a wonderful exchange – His Son’s obedience for our disobedience. Jesus exchanges his life for the redemption of every human who has ever lived and will ever live. All three figures make these exchanges for the benefit of others: Abram for his descendants; Paul for the Gentiles who don’t know Jesus; Jesus for you and me. All three are sent from comfort into the unknown – a frightening exchange. They are given a mission, which comes from the Latin word, “to be sent.”
Everyone baptized into Jesus has a mission – a share in his mission, actually. And every mission, every “sending” is to someone; it’s always for the benefit of others. You and I, as members of Christ’s body, share in the ongoing redemption of the world. The exchange that you and I are invited to make is our will, our plans, for God’s will and God’s plans. The purpose of the parish mission will be to convince you that this is not just a good exchange, but the best exchange we can make – and show you how to discover your call today.
Now, a basic Catholic fear is that if I say, “Here I am, Lord, send me,” we’ll end up in Tanzania; or perhaps end up with a very limited wardrobe consisting of the cutting edge of 13th c. fashion. But actually, our shortcut to happiness and fulfillment in this life is found in responding to God’s call. Your mission will fit you: your education, talents, experience, even your personality. St. Paul, with his excellent background in the Jewish scriptures, his zeal for God, and his willingness to live with his heart on his sleeve was a perfect instrument for spreading the Gospel.
As laity, your mission is going to be in the world – transforming its institutions from the inside. Take Jack Russo, for example. He’s an attorney who started a Foundation to teach lawyers how to exchange aggressive advocacy that creates winners and losers for creative dispute resolution that benefits society. Or consider Nancy Owen Myers; an entymologist by training, she exchanged the comfortable life of wife and mother for business entrepreneur. When her kids wouldn’t eat the lunches she packed because they got crushed, she created a foldable, washable, lunchbox and a company she calls Lunchsense, with plants in the US and Viet Nam. But her mission is still unfolding – all she knows is it has to do with combating hunger.
Steve Bigari, a West Point grad, business innovator and owner of 12 McDonald’s franchises, exchanged them all to start a non-profit called America’s Family. He shows service industry companies that providing health care, short-term loans and other benefits to employees actually increases productivity and income, while helping the working poor break the cycle of poverty. In doing so, he’s helped 10,000 families buy their own homes.
How did these people discover their call? Often, it begins with a feeling of unease or discontent about what we are doing. I was a Ph.D. candidate at Stanford in geophysics when I admitted to myself I wasn’t passionate about the magnetic field of the ancient earth – not the way my colleagues were. I didn’t imagine I’d end up here, I promise you – but it’s an exchange I’d make again in a heartbeat.
Life is all about exchanges and priorities. When you think about it, the story of the Fall is about one terrible exchange: knowledge about things, including God, in exchange for the experience of intimacy with Him and His creation. And that’s what the Tempter, or Marketer, as I like to think of him, is always about: getting us to exchange our genuine good for a cheap imitation. When we do that, we become a cheap imitation of ourselves. Jesus came to re-establish that intimacy of relationship through his death and resurrection, and through the invitation to each of us to “come and follow him” as a disciple. Pope John Paul II said a disciple "must…enter into [Jesus] with all his own self, one must 'appropriate' and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself." Redemptor Hominis, 10
In other words, by committing ourselves to a relationship with Jesus and allowing his will to become our own, we allow him to take flesh in us – we appropriate the Incarnation to ourselves. St. Paul could say, “I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me.” Gal 2:20 By discerning what it is he would have us do and doing it, we participate in the ongoing work of his redemption of the world today: healing the part of the world to which he sends us. Our mission forms us into the person we were created to be, and so is a part of our own redemption, as well. Of course, there’s fear involved: fear of the unknown, of failure, of looking the fool. That’s why today’s psalm reminds us, “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? We certainly shouldn’t fear God! The covenant established with Abram through the sacrifice of animals was reaffirmed and deepened through the sacrifice of God’s own Son. We celebrate that “new and everlasting” covenant at Mass, and we have nothing to fear – and everything to gain - in this holy exchange of bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood. The “chosen Son” is with you always, calling to you now, in your longing for significance and purpose, in your gifts, and even in your discontent. “Listen to him” and dare to follow him.