1 Jan 2012
“We pray, Lord, that those whom you have called to serve as priest and pastor may answer with lives joyfully devoted to you and to your people.” (Sacred Vocations prayer from today’s Mass)
In the name …
So the pastor would preach his sermon week after week. He put a great deal of effort into his words and presentation. Most all of the congregation listened attentively, but one older gentleman fell asleep half way through the sermon without fail ever single Sunday. This one man distracted the pastor no matter how he tried to ignore him. One Sunday after church the pastor made a deal with the man’s grandson. Every time grandpa dozed off, the pastor agreed to pay the boy $2 to wake him up. This arrangement worked great for three weeks, but by the fourth week grandpa was back to taking his nap during the sermon. After Mass that Sunday the pastor asked the grandson why he didn’t wake his grandfather up and earn his $2. The boy smiled sheepishly, gazed downward, and answered, “Because grandpa paid me $5 to not wake him up during church.” Being a priest and pastor requires a bit of give and take, some compromise, even, I guess, some bribing now and then.
On this Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate one of the unique feast days of our liturgical calendar, the Feast of the Humble Shepherds. This feast day was one of the first liturgical innovations of our church. It was called into existence in 1906 by the clergy and laity of the Special Synod of that year. Its original intent was to encourage the poor and immigrant population that they had not been forgotten or ignored by God. It’s now 105 years later, but all of the popular attention given to “the 99%” vs. the 1% that controls too much power and wealth, and the nationwide Occupy Movement, show that these concerns are still very real and very near. 1906 was still part of the Gilded Age of magnificent wealth, of names like Rockefeller, Carnegie, J.P. Morgan and Vanderbilt, and of Newport Mansions. All of this great amassing of wealth was built upon the labours of the immigrants who were flooding into this country and who were willing to work for next to nothing, and who were often treated as worth next to nothing. Some say that degree of inequality is returning to our nation. But our church respected these same people, maybe what we would call today the outsourced people, and reminded them that so did God. Today’s feast day trumpets the revelation that God’s angels were sent not to King Herod’s palace or the Jerusalem Temple, but to the humble shepherds of Bethlehem, the often mocked and ridiculed shepherds out in the fields keeping night watch. These were the ones honoured with the first proclamation of the Christmas message. If God so honoured them, He still honours those today who are taken for granted. Today’s feast day reminds us of the Christmas message of inclusion, that all people are embraced by the Holy Child.
Over the years another message was tacked-on to the Feast of the Humble Shepherds, the message of Sacred Vocations. We began to pray that Jesus would send us worthy candidates for our priesthood, priests in the image of Bethlehem’s humble shepherds. As you recess from church this morning, look again at the portrait of Bp. Hodur hanging from the choir loft. This is a direct copy of the portrait that hung in the front office of Scranton’s rectory when I was stationed there as an Assistant Priest. It is a portrait of a humble man. There is not glamour or glitter to his person or office. His cassock is a simple black one. Purple came into the church when the Roman Empire fell and the ancient church assumed many of the prerogatives of the now-absent imperial officers. But this is the same colour that came to symbolize penitence in the church, the pride and power that led to sinfulness. So Bp. Hodur rejected all of these trappings of power, and instead encouraged the creation of the Feast of feasts like that of the Humble Shepherds. He more often than not pointed to the flock rather than to the shepherds. He struggled to give them all voice and the courage to use it. “Think for yourselves!” he told his followers.
And he challenged his priests too. In 1906 the Special Synod spoke of Christ as a “common possession of humankind, just as the sun or the air.” Therefore, said the Synod, “The validity of whatsoever religious act, whatever sacrament does not depend on a priest, but on the faith of its recipient” and what we do with it. To receive the consecrated host and then act like a scoundrel is to deny the sacrament regardless of who gives it to you. Offer the sacrament in the humbleness of “open table” and let a person’s conscience take the lead, let Communion regenerate in us a spiritual fire, and then the sacrament is Christ’s real presence. The priest in this way becomes a humble instrument in the hands of Christ.
Like I said on Christmas, no one owns Jesus, not even the church. Jesus was born as one of us, and all of us, therefore, have a connection with Him. The privilege of the priesthood is to help people discover this truth. This is why already in 1906 the Synod listed as the first responsibility of the religious life a devotion to the Word of God. The earliest Christian writings of the New Testament would speak of the fact that believers “have been taught by God.” This again is that sacred direct and universal connection with God. The earliest church reveled in the prophetic spirit present among any and even all in the congregation. “Just as the sun or the air,” Jesus belongs to everyone, and again, the privilege of the priesthood is to enhance this closeness. By praying for Sacred Vocations in the context of this feast day, a feast whose origin is the common shepherd of Bethlehem, and whose intent is to honour the entire body of believers, we pray for priests and pastors who respect the congregation and work as a member of it rather than above it, who see the sacred as belonging to all, but whose calling is that they see the sacred with an inspired clarity of vision.
Sometimes priests and pastors have to compromise and even wager with the parish, but the priesthood does not belong to some idyllic and perfect ivory tower. Our priesthood is as pastors amid the congregation, the enthusiastic and even those who nap; to lead, hopefully, by example from among the church; for it is only the perversion of power that tries to command from above the church, that tries to undermine the prayers for humble shepherds within the church. That those who are called, whomever they may be, male or female, may be able to come and serve Christ and church as their Sacred Vocation inspires them, for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo