Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

February 6, 2021
St. Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8
Psalm 138:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 7-8
1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Luke 5:1-11

Pope Saint John Paul II observed prophetically in 1993 that in our culture, “A distorted sense of freedom…is lived out as a blind acquiescence to instinctive forces and to an individual’s will to power. Therefore, on the level of thought and behavior, it is almost natural to find an erosion of internal consent to ethical principles. On the religious level, such a situation, if it does not always lead to an explicit refusal of God, causes widespread indifference and results in a life which, even in its more significant moments and more decisive choices, is lived as if God did not exist.

In this context it is difficult not only to respond fully to a vocation to the priesthood but even to understand its very meaning as a special witness to the primacy of “being” over “having,” and as a recognition that the significance of life consists in a free and responsible giving of oneself to others, a willingness to place oneself entirely at the service of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God as a priest.”

The readings from today’s liturgy offer us the example of three distinct calls from God addressed to Isaiah, Peter, and to Paul amidst similar circumstances of indifference. Each of these readings depict a sense of unworthiness of receiving the divine call just as much as they depict the confidence that comes from the decisiveness of trusting God and putting one’s response into words and action.

The Lord calls Isaiah at the end of the reign of King Uzziah about 740 B.C. This reign lasted for fifty years, with great prosperity for the ruling class, but at the end, the prosperity suddenly crashes. The Lord called Isaiah at this time to go out and call the people to conversion from their evil ways to which they had grown accustomed and for which they were indifferent to the offense their actions gave to God. They refuse to heed Isaiah’s call and they perish in their indifference.

God calls Isaiah in a highly dramatic way complete with lofty throne, flowing robes, clouds of incense, and angels (seraphim to be exact) singing praises. Isaiah’s response to the vision is one of fear and trembling because he knows of his unworthiness and sinfulness. Isaiah’s prophecy reveals that there remains a great difference between even the best of human beings, and the blinding, ineffable goodness of God, and we need His mercy and grace to come into His presence. This grace of God given to Isaiah through the burning and purifying ember placed on his lips enables him to hear the Lord ask, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” and enables Isaiah to offer with confidence, “‘Here I am,’ I said; ‘Send me!’” The question and the response of Isaiah are both the fruits of God’s grace and not of Isaiah’s own initiative.

Today in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus’ working of the miraculous catch of fish opened the eyes of Simon Peter, the seasoned fisherman, to Jesus’ full identity as the Son of God and not simply as just one among many itinerant preachers. The crowd does not have the same recognition and awareness that Peter and the sons of Zebedee do. They are indifferent to the message of conversion that Christ offers even if they are excited by His miracles.

Peter’s experience of the call of the Lord and of his response to the call were like those of Isaiah: a sense of unworthiness, sinfulness, and fear in the presence of the Lord: “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” The call of Peter also is an experience entirely given by God’s grace and not by Peter’s initiative. This moment of graced insight for Peter and his fishing partners was the moment of their conversion to the Lord and their decision to follow Him completely. It is the consoling words of Jesus that enabled the response of Peter and of the sons of Zebedee to Jesus’ call, “They left everything and followed Him.”

Saint Paul, writing in his first letter to the Corinthians, is understated about the dramatic events surrounding his vocation especially when considering the accounts given in the Acts of the Apostles. Saint Paul presents a much more intimate and humble account of his vocation. He does not mention being knocked off his horse by lightning, the voice of Christ, the temporary blindness, or even his time of retreat in Arabia. He writes, “Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me. For I am the least of the apostles, not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God, I am what I am, and His grace to me has not been ineffective. Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them; not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.”

Saint Paul is relating not only the subjective experience of his conversion and vocation, but what he understands to be more important about it, the centrality of Christ and eternal life and the resurrection of the body offered to all believers through the grace won by the merits of Christ’s resurrection. This essential point of the authentic Gospel of the resurrection of the body — not just Christ’s resurrection but that of all believers — was something about which the Church at Corinth was quite indifferent. They were enamored and enthralled by charismatic gifts and words of prophecy. They very much embraced the altruistic and warm sentiments and values culled from the teachings of Jesus. They accepted the need for Baptism, the practice of the Eucharistic meal, and even the resurrection of Jesus Christ; but they were indifferent to the resurrection of the body and the eternal life that Christ offered them — and that required a moral conversion on their part from a good life compliant to the Law to a life reliant upon God’s grace and obedient in love.

Their salvation hinged on conversion from this indifference, and it was Paul’s vocation to be an instrument of Christ in bringing this about. The maturity and humility of Paul’s vocation has delivered him from the drama of the events surrounding his conversion and vocation that would otherwise have proved to be a distraction for the Corinthian church that is precisely preoccupied with such secondary matters. They were a people who were impressed by Christ and who admired Him, but they truly did not rely on Him nor follow Him.

Today in our life as a nation and as a Church, we confront indifference to the eternal truths of the Gospel of Christ including His love for us. This is true in our own lives and in the lives of many entrusted with leadership in government, in education, and in religion. Many of us feel the sentiment articulated in the questions, “Who cares?” or “So, what?” It is this indifference to grace and its corresponding accountability that is an indifference to God’s love — most especially the unconditional love manifested in the shedding of the blood of Jesus Christ upon the cross and of His resurrection that enables us to live as He lived — free from sin. Indifference will only lead us to perish in despair or presumption upon God’s goodness.

Today’s readings teach us that our hopeless indifference requires graced conversion. Despite our efforts, vocations to the priesthood cannot be brought about by making the priesthood more emotionally exciting and dramatic. They cannot be forged by redefining the Gospel or Christ’s priesthood according to passing and contemporary ideologies of equity and inclusion in place of the image and likeness of Christ the Good Shepherd and of human nature. Vocations to the priesthood must be prayed for with an openness and a willingness on the part of all to be converted and to care to listen to the voice of Christ amidst that clamor and confusion of the day. In that sense we each are responsible for priestly vocations.

As Pope Benedict XVI once remarked on these readings, “In these three experiences, we see how an authentic encounter with God brings the human being to recognize his poverty and inadequacy, his limitations and his sins. Yet despite this weakness, the Lord, rich in mercy and forgiveness, transforms the life of human beings and calls them to follow Him. The humility shown by Isaiah, Peter, and Paul invites all who have received the gift of a divine vocation not to focus on their own limitations but rather to keep their gaze fixed on the Lord and on His amazing mercy so that their hearts may be converted and that they may continue joyfully, ‘to leave everything’ to Him.”

We all agree that we need priests. We all agree that we would very much prefer wise and holy priests committed to servant-leadership. And we all agree that good and holy priests are the gift of the good and holy God. We must also admit this: God is more likely to give good and holy priests to those who desire them so much that they are not indifferent to encouraging servant-leadership in young men, in families, by means of prayer, sacrificial love, and selfless witness. Good, holy priests are more likely to emerge from parishes that are themselves striving, with God’s grace, to become saints. We all have a part to play in this apostolate. We cannot accomplish that work without the nourishment of the Eucharist. As we turn now to the celebration of the Eucharist, we ask our Lord to help us better hear from the cross His call for laborers — and we ask God to give men who have the call to priestly life and pastoral leadership to respond to that grace with the call of Isaiah: “Here I am—send me!”

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