Sunday, October 30, 2011

Being Called Father

“The greatest among you must be your servant.”  (Matthew 23:11)

I still remember the first time I was called “Father.”  I wasn’t even a priest yet.  My ordination was still nine days away.  I was visiting St. Agnes for the very first time and was being given a tour of my first assignment by the school bookkeeper and she kept calling me Father and introducing me to everyone as “Father Manny.”  I tried in vain to tell her that I wasn’t a priest yet that she could call me Manny, but she insisted because I was going to be a priest very soon and she wanted me to get used to it.  It was a little jarring at first being called “Father.”  It is for every newly ordained priest.  And even as I approach ten years of priestly service, when I stop and think about this, it is truly humbling and underserved.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells the disciples, “Call no one on earth your father.”  He does not mean this literally, for he is simply warning the disciples about the feeling of superiority that the Pharisees had gotten over all the titles they enjoyed being called.  For me, the title “father” has never made me feel superior, but rather been a challenge and a reminder of the incredible responsibility that the Good Lord has given to me in calling me to be his priest.  It is a challenge to be humble, selfless, and a servant above all else.  “The greatest among you must be your servant.”  Jesus reminds of us this in today’s gospel, but as a priest I was reminded of this on my ordination day when I lay prostrate on the cathedral floor.  Above all else, I must be your servant.

Last summer, I read great book by the biblical scholar Scott Hahn on the biblical origins of the priesthood titled, “Many Are Called:  Rediscovering the Glory of the Priesthood.”  I read it, providentially, on my first trip to Rome.  Dr. Hahn echoes the words of Jesus in today’s gospel that we have one Father in heaven, but what this great scholar said next really moved me:  “[God the Father’s] perfect fatherhood is a spiritual act.  Celibate priests are living and life-giving images of God the Father, as they beget new children for the kingdom through baptism (p.129).”  This week in his reflection on today’s readings, Dr. Hahn would finish that thought by saying:  “The fatherhood of…the Church’s priests and bishops, is a spiritual paternity given to raise us as God’s children.  Our fathers give us new life in baptism, and feed us the spiritual milk of the gospel and the Eucharist.”  Very challenging indeed when I stop to think about my call to mirror the spiritual paternity of God our Father.  It is a title that I do not take lightly, and I challenge all of you not to take lightly either because it reminds my brother priests and I of the humble service that we have been called to and all the spiritual children that have been entrusted to our care.

I have been thinking about this theme of spiritual paternity all week, and yesterday I texted several of my former parishioners from my first parish, young and old, and simply asked them:  “Why do you call me Father?”  I got some great responses from very humorous to very deep and moving:

-Because our children look up to you like a Father…because we respect the call your have answered to be a “Father”…Because your arms are always open like the “loving father.”
-Because you have gray hair and can be a pain like a father!
-Because it separates you from other people.
-Because you are a role model
-Because I can go to you to celebrate…look for advice, and cry on your shoulder for compassion.
-Because He chose you to be His reflection to all of us…you are called to model “Our Father” on earth.
-Because that’s what the church calls the priest therefore you are Father Manny
-Because you give me guidance, provide me with nourishment, chide me when I misbehave, and love me unconditionally.  Isn’t that what fathers do?

When I was reading these responses last night, I couldn’t help but tear up a bit.  I am a flawed human being who has been called by God to this extraordinary vocation of being a priest.  I know I have a lot to go when it comes to being a reflection of our Father in heaven.  There are days where priesthood is a joyful struggle as we try to make the Word of God come alive for a people distracted by the world.  It is difficult, but there is not greater life, for it is your prayers that sustain us.  We tend to forget that at Mass when the priest says, “This is my body which will be given up for you,” he is not simply repeating the words of Christ or dramatically re-enacting them.  He is acting the person of Christ and offering up his own life, as Christ did, for the people he is about to feed.  He is offering his own body and blood for the salvation of us all. 

I will end with a note that I got from one of you, my wonderful new parishioners, just yesterday morning.  This past week our pastor and other associate were on retreat so I was left behind to hold down the fort and offer up all the Masses during the week among other duties.  As you can imagine, I was exhausted at the end of the week, but then I picked up the note that simply read:  “Thank you for all the gifts of your priesthood this past week.  Because of you, we were able to receive Jesus every day.”

On this Priesthood Sunday, when so many of you thank us for being a priest, it is I who must thank all of you for allowing me to serve you at this altar and beyond as a priest of our Lord Jesus Christ.  You remind me every day, even on the difficult ones, of how richly blessed I am and how much I still need to go to be the perfect reflection of Our Father in heaven.  That is why on this day, and every day, I ask you:  never cease to pray for your priests.  And pray for vocation as well because you never know:  there may be a young man sitting in our midst that we will one day call “Father.”