Monday, May 8, 2017

"I HAVE NEITHER SILVER NOR GOLD, BUT WHAT I HAVE, I GIVE TO YOU." (A Letter from a Seminary Professor to his Students about to be Ordained Deacons)

“Receive the book of the Gospels whose herald you now are. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach”. 

These words will be spoken to you by the bishop on your day of ordination. On that momentous occasion, you will come to the end of several years of formation in seminary; you will become a deacon, and you will begin what I pray will be an entire lifetime of loving, generous, and humble service to the Church, the People of God.

When, on the Third Day, the women came to the tomb to anoint Jesus' body, they were greeted by the angel keeping watch. They heard two things that seem to be constant refrains throughout most of the post-resurrection appearances: (i) "Do not be afraid", and (ii) "Go and tell the good news".

The scriptural formula isn’t new, especially the first half. In the Old Testament, when God’s messenger appears to kings, prophets, or holy individuals, the greeting “Do not be afraid”, or “Have no fear”, always accompanies the message as the initial greeting.

Usually though, the news being relayed is for the person to whom God’s message is being given. Even during the annunciation (to Mary and Zechariah in Luke), the structure of the greeting and message is the same: Do not be afraid – I have a message from God for you. In the post-resurrection narratives, the orientation, the trajectory goes outward, but the structure remains largely the same—at least the initial greeting: “Do not be afraid”.

It is the same message that God wishes to give you, and to carry in your heart as you begin your ministry as deacons and later on, as priests. “Do not be afraid”. God will be there for you, at every step of the way, at every turn, at every single moment. He will be there at the beginning of your journey, and he will await you at its end.

In ministry, our greatest enemy isn’t fatigue, it isn’t burnout, it isn’t our weaknesses, it isn’t the burdens that we will have to carry (ours and those of others), it isn’t the challenges and difficulties that relationships of every sort will bring us, it isn’t poor health or even material need (which is the least of our worries). The greatest enemy of our ministry, our fidelity to our vocation, and our promises, is fear.

But as Jesus assures and reassures his disciples, most especially after he rose from the dead and prepared to return to his Father in heaven, there is nothing to fear. When our gaze is fixed intently on Christ, when our entire life is anchored in him, we have absolutely nothing to fear – because he will always be there for us, to strengthen us and keep our hearts on fire.

"Go and tell the good news”! The orientation of our entire life should be outward, not inward; it should be a daily, hourly, and minute-by-minute proclamation of the good news that we have each experienced – the joy of being called and chosen by God. This is the heart and core of everything that we proclaim and everything that we do. But it must always go outward. The interior, St. Augustine reminds us, is far more important than what lies outside; and that is certainly true. That is always true.

At the same time,  the interior will mean very little (in the work of ministry and in the task of evangelization) if it does not make itself manifest externally: in our words, and in our deeds, but most especially in the witness of our lives.

You are the single greatest proclamation of the Gospel; not simply what you say, not simply what you do, but you. A simple yet ancient formula was recovered by the Fathers of Vatican II: Jesus is the sacrament of God; the Church is the sacrament of Christ; and you, are the ‘sacrament’, the most visible manifestation, representative, and embodiment of the Church. 

We are the church’s heralds, the church is the herald of Christ’s gospel, and Christ is the visible manifestation of the Father. We are part of a community of believers; we are its representatives, and we must be mindful of that in everything we do. But what we represent is not an institution, but a communion, a brotherhood, a fellowship of believers, bound by the good news that Jesus is Risen.

You are forever going to be a “herald” of the Gospel of Christ.

On the day of your ordination, the bishop is going to place the scriptures in your hands and say those words, “you are a herald of the gospel”. We preach the Good News of Christ risen, Christ triumphant over death, over suffering, over pain and sorrow. We preach him with our words, but we preach him with our lives as well. 

Remember, there are five gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and your life as witness. The first four most people will not be able to read. St. Francis was said to counsel his friars, “preach the gospel at all times, when necessary, use words”.

There is immense joy in this life you have chosen. There will be graces and blessings at every turn, but you must be ready and willing to see them, to pay attention to them, to recognize them, to savor them, and finally, to be grateful for them.

That joy, nothing will be able to take away from you, no setback, no challenge, no difficulty, no suffering, no solitude, no loneliness because your friends are gone. Nothing, absolutely nothing can take from you the joy this life brings – unless you let it.

We have the choice to be happy, fulfilled, joyful, content, and at peace in our life in the ordained ministry. Take joy in the lives of the people you shall touch – and believe me, there will be many.

You will have days when you shall be tired, exhausted, trying to catch your breath, but it will all be worth it, and you shall lie on your bed at night, truly happy, truly content, truly at peace – because you know you are continuing Christ’s work.

Enjoy celebrating the sacraments you are about to be able to celebrate, even as deacons. Those moments, especially the very first ones, with your friends, with your family, will be most memorable, most joyful, and most grace-filled. Their memories will stay with you for the rest of your priestly lives. But most of all, enter fully, or as best you can into the lives of those you will be ministering to, especially families that are grieving the loss of a loved one. Prepare your homilies well and have a great time preaching and opening the treasures of the Scriptures to the people of the parish to which you will be assigned.

Remember to be good providers; feed God’s flock well. To preach the gospel is the most important task of a priest, and that is your calling, that is your mission. Be generous with your time, diligent in your effort, and creative in preparing for Sunday Eucharist. Our people are hungry, do not let God's flock starve.

Be good fathers. Be good shepherds. Be protectors of your flock and defenders of the faithful whom God will entrust to your care. The late good bishop, Agustin Roman's motto should be a constant reminder to us: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel”. (I Cor. 9:16)

 “Believe what you read; teach what you read; and practice what you teach”.

We have spoken of the cross many times these past few days that we've been together, and you must never lose sight of the trajectory of our life in the ordained ministry. One must "minister from the cross."

But as we also tried to emphasize, ministering from the cross means knowing that it is from the vantage point of Jesus crucified that we serve others.

The primary focus of our attention is others, others, and always others – those whom God will send us to lead, guide, assist, aid, and serve. Self-negation won’t be self-negation, kenosis won’t be kenosis, and servanthood won’t be servanthood, if we remain focused on ourselves, our ideas, our sins, our wounds, our failings, our mistakes – and we will all make mistakes.

Some of these mistakes will be bigger, and your attention might even be called by your pastor and gently told about it, or maybe even by the bishop later on. We all get over them. We learn from our mistakes and we move on. Just keep doing things as best you can. And never stop finding joy and satisfaction with what you will be doing.

You know, ordination day will be exciting. But, trust me, nothing compares to waking up the following morning. Make every day of your life in the ministry, like the next day after your ordination. It will fill you with freshness, zest, enthusiasm, and energy.

You are heralds of the Good News, the proclamation that God’s Kingdom is at hand. Be that good news, to everyone you meet. Give them something to carry with them when they leave you. “Feed God’s sheep”. May they always know Christ, from having known you, in whatever way, in whatever capacity.

Be Christ to everyone you encounter, everyone you minister to. They may forget your name, but may the trace of that encounter that you shall leave them be a trace, a footprint of Christ, one that leads them to God rather than away from him.

In Christ, and in him alone, are our lives and ministries anchored. But it is also Christ, and him alone that we preach, that we give and share. 

"I have neither silver nor gold, but what I have, I give to you. In the name of Jesus the Nazorean, walk!” (Acts 3:6)

There will be moments, when because of sheer fatigue or whatever reason, we may find ourselves wanting to go back into our shell (whatever shells those might be – our areas of comfort, if you will). There may be moments when we feel so inadequate to the task (and honesty with our bishop is vital in this regard), but what’s truly important in ministry is “zeal for the gospel”, and the willingness to put ourselves on the line, trusting that God who “has begun the good work in us, will bring it to completion”. God will provide. He will always provide. [And never forget that very useful line, though one should never rely on it too often, ecclesia suplet, "the church supplies".]

“What I have, I give to you”. 

Be generous, God has been generous to us. “As I have done to you, so must you do for one another”, Jesus admonishes his disciples after he had washed their feet. The only fitting response to God’s love, forgiveness, kindness, and generosity that we have experienced from the very moment we felt him calling us, is to give that same love, forgiveness, kindness, and generosity to those he shall be sending to us, those we shall be ministering to, those whose lives we shall touch, and who shall touch our lives in return. 

“What I have, I give to you”. There was something Pope Francis said to the cardinals before the conclave – the notes of which he had apparently passed on to one of the cardinals (and he didn’t forbid him from talking about its content). The church he said, has to “go out into the world”. It cannot engage in what he called “narcissism and an unhealthy orientation that goes inward instead of outward”.

We are heralds of Christ’s gospel, and our place isn’t simply the sanctuary of our parishes, but the roads, the streets, the schools, the places of work – not that we are meant to “be there”, but the focus of our attention is evangelizing those who are there – so that they in turn can spread the net far and wide, and win the world for Christ.

Two last things:

First, allow others to minister to you. We may be heralds of the Good News, representatives of Christ, but so are others. And we must allow them to minister to us, in the same way that we minister to them. These persons, these men and women who will minister to you, are going to be the sources of God’s continued presence in your life and in your ministry. Allow others into your lives, because by doing so, you are allowing God to enter your life concretely, in the here and now.

Always be mindful of those whom God sends in order to be the sources of strength in our lives, the prophetic voices that will keep us on the straight and narrow. Never surround yourself with people who will only let you hear what you want to hear, but keep close those will make sure you hear what you have to hear.

Second, never lose the “heart of a child”. “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, practice what you teach”. It all begins, is sustained, and ends, with that simple word, “believe”. It is at the core of a child-like heart.

This might sound trite, but never stop learning, never stop growing, never stop increasing in wisdom and knowledge before God. I’ve said it again and again (perhaps because we cannot say it enough) - at the heart of all the problems of the Scribes and Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day, and of religious leaders of every time, and of every religion is that one fault: cynicism.

Its antithesis is the very first word in that line the bishop will say to you when he places the Book of the Gospels in your hands: “Believe!"

“Unless you acquire the heart of a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of God”. 

Never “grow old”, always keep your heart, your mind, your spirit, and your soul “child-like”. Never lose that sense of wonder, of amazement, of enthusiasm about life, about ministry, about yourself, about the church, about the priesthood.

The last couple of days, I shared with you five lessons I hope you take with you as we part ways today. And I quote from the Book of Acts, "silver and gold I have none, but what little I have I share with you".

(i) First, do not give in to jadedness and cynicism. (ii) Second, avoid church gossip like the plague. (iii) Third, stay close to the poor, they will be your salvation. (iv) Fourth, never dwell too long on difficulties and problems, keep your focus on Christ and on immediately finding a solution. And finally, (v) do something that will always remind you of the time before you were ordained.

Promise yourself to never give up doing something that will remind you of the time when you were still looking forward to becoming a deacon or a priest. It will keep you grounded, it will keep you humble.

Bishop John Noonan used to wash dishes and made coffee for people when he lived with us at St. John Vianney. The Cardinal Archbishop of Manila takes the bus, does his grocery shopping from time to time, and invites beggars on the street to join him at meals. Pope Francis continues to act like the pastor of a parish church. I know a priest who, despite his busy schedule, does his own laundry, except ironing his clothes, which he hates. What is yours?

May each day of your ministry, for the rest of your life, be like the morning of that first day after your ordination. May it always be like a well-tended garden, full of life, full of growth, full of color, full of hope.

Our lives in the ministry are a journey, a pilgrimage – deeper and deeper into the very heart of Christ. And along the way, there will be great joy, a lot of challenges, even difficulties and heartaches, but if we set our heart and mind, and our gaze firmly on Jesus, we have nothing to fear.

God who was there at the initial “founding moment of your vocation”, will be there at every step of the way; and he will be there at its fruitful completion.

With a heart filled with gratitude for having been given this unique grace and blessing to pray and walk with you during this most important point in the unfolding story of your calling, I bless you, as an older brother in Christ.

May the Lord, bless and keep you.
May His face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May He look upon you with kindness, and give you his peace.

Remember that you will always have this old professor of yours, praying for you, hoping only happiness and fulfillment for you in your ministry, and wishing you years of joyful service in the vineyard of the Lord.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)