My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, I am certain you will agree that the readings for 16th of January’s reflection could not be more apt for a context such as this one, when the Diocesan Clergy of the Province of Castries are assembled for the opening liturgy of their 33rd Annual Conference. It is well to note that these scriptural texts were not specifically chosen for this occasion. They are the readings designated for Monday of the Second Week in Ordinary Time.
However, it is hardly possible for any clergyman to listen to those two texts without paying some attention to them. As for the first lesson from the Letter to the Hebrews (5:1-10), I regard it as one of the most sobering texts and at the same time one of the most challenging, as it pertains to the priesthood of Jesus Christ in which we are so privileged to share. It reminds me of the not-so-often-quoted saying of St. Augustine, who was the Bishop of Hippo in North Africa in the 5th century. He said to the Christian faithful in his day: “When I am frightened by what I am to you, then I am consoled by what I am with you. To you I am a bishop, with you I am a Christian. The first is an office, the second is grace, the first is danger, the second salvation”(Augustine, Sermon 340, 1; PL 38, 1483).
No doubt, this quote can be applied to the ministerial role of any clergyman of any age and in any culture. It succinctly expresses the pastoral sentiments of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews. It also serves as a reminder to us that we belong to one world but we exist in two. Truthfully, we are designed for eternity, but that state of existence has its beginnings in the present terrestrial setting. In other words, our present world is the breeding ground for that state to which we are all destined. It is evident that the author of the Letter to the Hebrews uses the figure of the Christ as the model on which we need to pattern our share in the priesthood.
With reference to the Augustinian affirmation, to which we just alluded, we are reminded that the priestly enterprise, which we embrace on behalf of God’s people, is a dangerous venture. This is so because our human limitations, which hinder the complete divine imitation to which we are called, cannot but force us to be humbled by the reality of our humanness. This is by no means a belittling process in our regard. It is rather the recognition of our limits and the extent of our privileged invitation to share, or even meddle, in matters of the next world. It is truly humbling because, none of us is really worthy of it. Even in our mortal frailty, our participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ is meant primarily to lead others, and ourselves, to that divine orbit. The gracefulness of this, however, is the fact that both the call and the power to exercise it, are not of human origin. They are part of a divine initiative. Once again, the Letter to the Hebrews (5:7-10) provides us with the disposition required to imitate the one in whose priesthood we share.
While the reading begins by giving us a sense of inclusion, this last section presents the responsibility that goes with that inclusion. It calls for “prayer and entreaty,” “aloud and in silent tears;” it involves “humble submission;” it calls for “obedience through suffering;” all the terms with which our world and ourselves too, are progressively becoming uncomfortable. If I were to ask the laity what they expect of us priests, I would not be surprised if their answers were very simple and very similar. I would however, be surprised, if they were any different from what is represented in the readings. If the latter is true, therefore, it leaves us with a great deal of work to do.
I am certain that every cleric around the Lord’s table today, has at some point, felt like running away from his ministerial and pastoral task. The reasons are no doubt multiple and varied, whether it be due to the heavy demands of ministry in the modern world, resulting partly from the shortage of personnel, or the experience of despondency that may come with the lack of reward for a life of self-giving, or the feeling of a lack of appreciation for one’s dedicated service, or the discouragement that comes from the feeling of a lack of success in ministry. Therein, however, lies the greatest danger. Implicit in these feelings is the risk of reducing one’s vocation to a quest for recognition, a bid for attention or a pursuit of rewards. Not that a certain degree of these attributes is not necessary for the psychological stability and emotional maturity of the minister. However, the Holy Scriptures seem to have a certain abhorrence to any self-serving tendency in the ministry of the Word of God.
It is not surprising that the prosperity gospel which is in such common currency today, is one of the prime temptations of the modern cleric. I find no indication in the readings of it being a position of honour.
According to the Augustinian narrative, it is an invitation to “dangerous living”. It is an invitation to respond to the call of God to assist those who are struggling with sin, to help liberate those who are enslaved in one way or another, to bring solace to hearts that are disturbed and to help redeem those who are lost. And that is not an altogether comfortable existence, if it has anything to do with Jesus as model. The question posed in this context is: who are we looking for? Is it Jesus of Nazareth or someone else, or something else?
The gospel reading (Mk.2:18-22) provides yet another dimension of the pastoral challenge. It seems to indicate that the time of fasting is nigh. It presents it as an absolute responsibility of the sacred minister and an integral function of Christian ministry. In a world, such as ours, which, to my mind, suffers from multiple forms of the disease of gullibility and gluttony, fasting is a bad word. As we all know, on the spiritual level, fasting has two major functions. Firstly, depriving oneself of bodily needs as a sign of solidarity with those who are deprived, and secondly, emptying oneself of physical food or other material needs so as to be more available to God and his mission.
I am certain you will agree that besides our own need for personal sanctity, the priestly responsibility of developing a sense of solidarity with those in need seems more daunting today than ever before. Every clergyman, I would submit, is groping for ministerial and pastoral relevance in this modern technological world. The questions from the young and the old, that are seeking immediate answers, are more numerous than we can even begin to imagine. The dominance of the social media places traditional means of communicating information, including the Gospel message, in a tailspin, and thereby rendering it seemingly obsolete. The inability of our youth to build solid foundations on the tried and tested living traditions is more and more evident. The challenges posed by modern family structures, the new age realities, the multiplicity of issues regarding gender, the many moral and ethical problems: be they child abuse, the effects of drug and alcohol abuse, the growing apathy towards things religious that pervade our Caribbean cultures, give us more than enough reasons for which we need to fast. The Lord reminds us: “The time will come for the bridegroom to be taken away …, and then, on that day, they will fast.” Believe it or not, that time is now.
The theme chosen for this year’s conference, incidentally, is Laudato Si’: On caring for our common home, the Encyclical Letter of Our Holy Father Francis. You have charged yourselves, brothers, with the task of examining its social and pastoral implications. It is certainly not by accident that you came up with that choice. This is partly because it is the most talked about subject in the conscientious quarters of the globe; and because it is a major concern for the safety of our common habitat. It is not without reason that St. John Paul II often referred to the ecological crisis as a moral crisis, which we have a responsibility to redress. That in itself calls for a certain kind of fast – an ecological fast, maybe or an environmental fast, if we wish; but fasting, nevertheless; that is, the reformation of one’s disposition for desired spiritual or developmental results. Ultimately, it will challenge our use of the world’s available resources.
I am saying all this to indicate that whether on the social, moral, spiritual or physical level, our world is in crisis. And this liturgy presents us, as a body of Christians, clergy and laity alike, a particular challenge in the here and now, to dispose ourselves to addressing it. As you know, our Blessed Lord never leaves us without some sort of response to the task at hand, albeit sometimes only provisional; meaning that it has to be unraveled in the varied circumstances of our pastoral lives.
This therefore is our challenge; this is our mission – new wine, fresh skins. It is only by taking a serious look at this line of advice that we can begin the process of renewing the face of the earth in accordance with the demands of the times in which we live. I therefore pray that the good Lord who has called and enabled us, will bring his work to its fulfillment. Amen!