Saturday, July 18, 2015

Calling our Priests to Holiness - A Homily for the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

July 19, 2015
Calling our Priests to Holiness

St. John Vianney, the humble parish priest of the tiny and insignificant village of Ars in France during the early decades of the 19th century, was – in the eyes of the world – a worthless and weak specimen of a priest. He failed his classes in the seminary, was in poor health for most of his life, was physically unattractive, lacked social charisma, and was ostracized by many of the other priests in his diocese. He was sent to Ars – a “backwater” town with barely 200 people in it – under the presumption that he could do very little damage there since the place was already in such bad shape. It was a poor village and the people of Ars had become quite irreligious in the aftermath of the French Revolution: on Sundays the parish church would be almost empty while the four taverns in town were bursting at the seams. The people openly blasphemed God in the streets and the fathers of families squandered their money away on gambling and drink. This was, it seemed, the perfect place to send a dud of a priest.

But, as you can well imagine, the new curĂ© of Ars had been underestimated. As is so often the case with God, John Vianney had been deprived of earthly wisdom and magnanimity so that he could excel in spiritual wisdom and sanctity. When he arrived in Ars, he immediately began fasting and making sacrifices for his people: his diet consisted of rotten potatoes and stale bread, his bed was nothing more than a couple of planks of wood on the floor, and he would spend long hours throughout the night before the Blessed Sacrament begging God to convert the hearts of his people. And slowly, over time, things began to change in Ars. The taverns began to close and more and more people began coming to Mass to hear the little priest preach with passionate conviction. The name of Jesus could be heard on the streets spoken with piety and reverence rather than in blasphemy. And due to the word that was spreading all throughout the region, the lines of John Vianney’s confessional were so long that he would have to sit there for upwards of 17 hours a day – breaking only to say Mass, to teach catechism, and to replenish his feeble body with a modicum of sleep. In a few short decades, Ars had been completely changed by this so-called dud of a priest. In fact, St. John Vianney had been so successful that the Devil – who often attacked him – told him once: “If there were three such priests as you, my kingdom would be ruined.”

The example of St. John Vianney, and of so many others like him, shows us yet again that God does not build up His Church with the great and the intelligent and the wonderful, but with the humble and the holy. This was true in the early 19th century, it was true in 33 AD, and it still is true in our day. It is the genuine sanctity of our priests, of our shepherds, that keeps the flock strong and faithful. A priest can be charming, intelligent, charismatic, attractive, cultured, funny, and yet if he lacks holiness these very traits will lead him and others to destruction.

There’s an old saying, attributed to another 19th century French priest, that says:
“If a priest is a saint, his people will be holy.
If a priest is holy, his people will be good.
If a priest is good, his people will be lukewarm.
If a priest is lukewarm, his people will be bad.
And if a priest is bad, his people will go to hell.”

This is a sober, but poignant reality: a shepherd of souls bears great responsibility, and if he fails to grow closer to Christ himself, how can he expect to help bring others closer to Christ? If holiness is not his goal, he will lead himself and others to pursue things that are not holy or that are unholy. If you listened closely to our readings today, you’ll hear this message loud and clear. In the first reading, Jeremiah brings the very harsh and frightening words of God to those who had charge over the people of Israel: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture…you have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.” And in the Gospel, our Lord is moved to pity for a people who had been abandoned in their needs, like sheep without a shepherd.

In our world and in our Church today, shepherds are continuing to scatter the flock of the Lord, just as in the days of Jeremiah and in the days of our Lord Himself. We can easily think of the horrible tragedy of the sex abuse scandal, but the scattering can and does happen in more subtle and pernicious ways. Priests who refuse to preach the truth, who condone sin, who abuse their authority in the confessional…priests who celebrate the Mass and the Sacraments carelessly and recklessly, who don’t go to the hospital when they’re called, who won’t make time to meet with those in distress…priests who over-indulge in pleasure, who seek the things of the earth and not the things of heaven, priests who don’t pray and who don’t help others to pray. The only key to a good priest is not his worldliness or his intelligence, it’s not his ability to socialize or his charm…it’s his holiness.

But priests do not become holy in a vacuum – we need you, just as you need us, to attain holiness. We need your prayers and your sacrifices. And we need you to challenge us and to call us to greater holiness. We cannot be seen just as professional ministers employed to make sure religious services happen and sermons get preached…we are your shepherds, and if we are to succeed in our mission, we have to become holy. Often times priests become less holy because there’s no one to keep them accountable…people become satisfied simply that there’s a priest, and it’s easy to lower their expectations of them. But the Lord calls His priests to much more, and the people of God deserve everything that the Lord can give them through His priests. There are certain things that you can absolutely expect from your priests, and when they fail, for the sake of your salvation and theirs, you have the right and the obligation to challenge him to more. Here are the things that you can expect from your priest:

1.)   That he celebrate the Mass and the Sacraments faithfully, reverently, and carefully.
2.)   That he is moral and chaste.
3.)   That he pray and fast often, and that if you ask him he will do so for you personally.
4.)   That he preach and teach the truth and not error, and that he remain 100% faithful to the teachings of the Church.
5.)   That he preach thoughtful homilies, or at least homilies in which he has put much thought.
6.)   That he be a lion in the pulpit, but a lamb in the confessional.
7.)   That when you or a loved one is sick or ailing and in need of the Sacraments, he will come as quickly as possible.
8.)   That he will tell you the truth, even if you don’t want to hear it at the time.
9.)   That he will live relatively simply – being a man in the world, but not of the world.
10.)  That he will sacrifice himself for your needs and the needs of the parish.

There are other qualities you might want in a priest, but these are the things I think that are necessary for his holiness, and by extension, your holiness. In truth and in love, hold us accountable when we fail so that we all might truly and more really experience the same grace that flowed through the little village of Ars, the grace of the Holy Priesthood. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

Prophecy and Popularity - A Homily for the 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

July 12, 2015
Prophecy and Popularity

When I was growing up, everything was about popularity. In school, at the playground, in the neighborhood, while playing sports, your quality of life seemed to depend almost entirely upon how well you were liked and how many people liked you. The “cool kids” were the ones who called the shots about everything and they were the ones who determined who “belonged” and who didn’t, thus determining whether or not someone would be liked. There were not many “cool kids;” their numbers were kept fairly low, allowing them to become an elite minority catered to by the majority – those who desperately wanted to be cool and liked and who spent a lot of time and energy trying to fit in, doing whatever they could to impress others. On the bottom of the childhood food chain were the rejects – those who, whether they wanted to or not, would simply not be accepted by the cool kids and the majority they controlled. These were the kids who, because of their physical appearance, family situation, academic capabilities, etc., were deemed too much “unlike” the others and so could enjoy no acceptance by them. The social structure punished rejects for being different, creating an atmosphere of bullying. The cool kids and their cronies seemed to enjoy having others to pick on…they needed the rejects in order to further assert their social superiority and they delighted in making their lives miserable. The funny things is, it was precisely when a so-called reject showed no interest in trying to be liked and accepted by the others, when he or she spent no effort catering to the demands of the majority, that he or she would become a target of the most intense bullying. When a person stops caring about being accepted or liked by the majority, they pose a threat to the false gods of popularity and the infrastructure that protects the popular elite is at risk of crumbling, and so persecution is the only alternative.

For kids, this whole thing can be particularly and drastically traumatic. Those of us who have reached adulthood often look back at this dynamic, shake our heads and dismiss it as youthful and immature ignorance. But the social phenomenon of childhood bullying, the dynamic of an elite minority that controls a complacent majority and that persecutes a rejected minority, is not limited to childhood…it extends itself, more subtly and more perniciously, into our big and sophisticated grown up world. We tend to think that, as a child grows he or she will become more enlightened, just as we tend to think that as society progresses it inevitably becomes more moral, but this is not the case. The reality is, from the time we are conceived in our mother’s womb to the time we die, whether it’s in antiquity or in modernity, the human person suffers from sin, which brings about an inordinate love of one’s own self. When we love ourselves inordinately, we want to force others to love us inordinately…and this is the root cause for almost every problem we face in our world.

In our readings today, the Lord is trying to open our eyes and ears to this dynamic and He is trying to show us where our place ought to be in it. In our first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Amos, we see the prophet encountering rejection by the priest Amaziah. Speaking on behalf of the sinful and self-absorbed people, Amaziah tells Amos that he has no place in Israel…Amos’ message is one of conversion and repentance, but the people of Israel will hear none of it. Amos is only one such example of a prophet who is rejected by the elite minority and the complacent majority. He was forced out of the land of Israel and had to retreat to his native land. If Amos were a weaker man, he might have tried to begin catering to the demands of the people in order to sweeten them up towards him and to win their affection, or he might have become devastated by their rejection allowing himself to be crushed by them. But Amos was not concerned with his popularity among the Israelites…his love for them was subordinate to the love of God, Who commanded Him to prophesy, at whatever cost, to this people gone astray. Though he would not be given a voice in public discourse, and though his presence would not be tolerated in the land of Israel, his words – the words God gave him – could still be made known to them. Amos changed his tactics and began to write his oracles from afar, hoping and trusting that this generation or the next might eventually begin to heed the word of God and obey His law.

In our Gospel today, Jesus Himself sends the Apostles out two-by-two on their first mission trip. Though they are invested with His own authority, the authority of God Himself, He warns them that they will be rejected and He encourages them to take this rejection in strides. It seems inherent to Christianity, as evidenced in both the Old and New Testaments, that the recurring response to the saving message of Christ is rejection. The Cross itself, the very symbol of Christianity, is the ultimate symbol of rejection. Those who hold power and those who cater to them are threatened by Christ because He, not the beautiful and the popular, subjects all things to Himself. And when, in fidelity and love, we subject ourselves to Christ, we must also be prepared to face the rejection He faced.

In our modern times, the world is becoming more obvious in its rejection of Christ and His Church. In the Middle East, Christians are being slaughtered daily…and so very little is being done to stop it. In the United States, the elite minority have convinced and bamboozled the majority of people into accepting laws directly contrary to the will of God…and the Church, like the Prophet Amos, is told to shut up and to go along with it. Our Crucified Christ bleeds Himself out in love for His people, but because He is not one of the cool kids and because His message undermines their powers, He is rejected and His followers are bullied.

As we consider all of this, there are three things we should be mindful of. The first is that we cannot escape rejection while still remaining faithful to Christ. He Himself said to the disciples, “The servant is not greater than his master. If they have persecuted Me, they will persecute you.” Christianity is tough stuff – it’s not a feel-good fairy tale – and so if you want it, you have to be willing to suffer. The second is that this rejection that we face offers us no excuse to bellyache. Like the Prophet Amos, we have to be willing to pick ourselves up and start anew, shaking the dust from our sandals as our Lord commands us. Martyrdom, enduring persecution for Christ’s sake, is an honor and brings with it a glorious crown…but there is no merit to this suffering if we spend our time complaining about it. The third is that this rejection is not final…Christ is the Victor, He is the Ruler, and He is the Redeemer. He has already triumphed over sin – the question now is will we get on our crosses and endure His death so that we can share in His victory?

Our quality of life as Christians doesn't come from acceptance by the crowd or the love of the comes first and foremost from knowing that we are radically and unconditionally loved by God. So Christianity isn’t about being popular or following the crowd…it’s about calling all people, including ourselves, to respond to Christ’s gift of His love. Today we pray for the grace to remain steadfast and faithful, to continue being God’s prophetic voice no matter where we go and no matter the cost.