Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

March 30, 2022
St. Joseph Seminary College
Covington, Louisiana

Isaiah 49: 8-15
Psalm 145:8-9, 13cd-14, 17-18
John 5:17-30

“Most Reverend Father, Holy Mother Church asks you to ordain this man, our brother, for service as a priest.” These are words from the Rite of Ordination of priests. We have all heard these words before. As seminarians and as priests, and even as a bishop, they are words that simply lay before us reality in the order of grace and nature. They are words that are worthy of our reflection as we discern and continue to be formed in the mystery of the priesthood and its significance pastorally amidst the mystery of the Church.

The ancient Greeks referred to Zeus as “Father.” Yet, their reference to him as a father was not to convey that Zeus was trustworthy and in a loving relationship with people as his children. They referred to Zeus as father to compare him with their experience of human fatherhood, which was fraught with favoritism for some human children and abandonment of other human children. Zeus as “father” was to be either feared or courted. Zeus was thought of by most as requiring at best a cordial but distant relationship because one would never know when Zeus might be provoked to meddle in human affairs with his capricious and selfish power.

Jesus Christ has come to reveal the full nature of man and the full nature of God. He came to show us the Father. In so doing, He addresses God as Father not in the way the Greeks addressed Zeus in the fashion of human fatherhood in a fallen world, but to reveal the true and full nature and meaning of fatherhood in His unique Sonship with God, the Father. It is this relationship by which He redeems human beings and through grace offers us the same loving relationship with God. As Jesus will say to the Apostle Philip elsewhere in the Gospel, “He who sees me, sees the Father.” As Pope Benedict XVI once observed, “The biblical Father is not a heavenly duplicate of human fatherhood. Rather, He posits something new: He is the Divine critique of human fatherhood. God establishes His own criterion.”

This is most clearly exemplified in Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah we heard in the first reading today. The description of God offered by Isaiah is one of persistent mercy and firm kindness. God remembers His people. His fatherhood is even more intimate and tender than that which a mother naturally feels for her children. In Christ, God redeems human fatherhood and heals the rift between fathers and their children because of the human condition weakened by sin. “The Lord is gracious and merciful.”

This redeemed sense of human fatherhood is what Christ especially offers men whom He calls and ordains as His priests. Priests are called to be shepherds and grace enables them to be fathers who tenderly care for the Lord’s flock as their children in the order of grace with the love that God has for them. Priests are called and enabled to love their children and to protect them from sin and the great accuser who would lead them to misery and destruction. This paternal relationship also is the intended relationship between a bishop and his priests as made clear by the Rite of Ordination. Priests remember their children especially in their prayers in the Liturgy of the Hours and the celebration of Mass. “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15).

St. Therese of the Child Jesus and of the Holy Face, the greatest saint of modern times, relates a story in her spiritual autobiography, Story of a Soul that, I believe, illustrates quite beautifully this aspect of paternal and pastoral charity offered lovingly by God to His people through the ministry of priests.

She writes, “Suppose a clever physician’s child meets with a stone in his path which causes him to fall and break a limb. His father comes to him immediately, picks him up lovingly, takes care of this hurt, using all the resources of his profession for this. His child, completely cured, shows his gratitude. The child is no doubt right in loving his father! But I am going to show you another comparison. The father, knowing there is a stone in his child’s way, hastens ahead of him and removes it without anyone seeing him do it.

“Certainly, this child, the object of his father’s tender foresight, but UNAWARE of the misfortune from which he was delivered by him, will not thank him, and will love him less than if he had been cured by him. But if he should come to learn the danger from which he escaped, will he not love his father more? Well, I am this child, the object of the foreseeing love of a Father who has not sent His Word to save the just but to save sinners. He wants me to love Him because He has forgiven me not much but ALL.”

As priests called and ordained to be pastors and fathers of Christ’s flock, our ministry is not only to manifest God’s forgiveness for those who have fallen and been injured on the journey. Our call and ministry are to manifest God’s complete mercy by removing obstacles and dangers that obstruct the path on one’s journey to heaven—especially if this expression of paternal and pastoral love is neither known nor appreciated. To prepare and to strengthen us for this vocation and service, the Lord gives us Lent to reflect not only on the sins that He has forgiven us but also the sins that His grace has prevented us from suffering. To know from what we have been saved engenders a fresh spirit of gratitude within us necessary for authentic discipleship and priestly ministry. In knowing this we can truly sing with love, “The Lord is gracious and merciful.”

It is good for the words of the psalmist to be on our lips. They need to take root in our heart and mind so that they can animate our service. During this Lent, ask Our Lord in prayer for the gift of gratitude for the gift of your fathers, no matter what their shortcomings or even sins. Pray for your fathers. A lot has been written and spoken today about “the father wound” that affects many young men including those in priestly formation, yet the fact remains that our fathers are those whom God has given us and through whom, along with our mothers, we were given the gift of life and that in itself calls for reverence. This gratitude is one conduit of the grace that will assist you in discerning the concrete forms of service and witness that you as priests will show to God’s people as recipients of the gift of fatherhood redeemed by Jesus Christ.

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