When we began to livestream Sunday Liturgy here at All Saints, I joked that the experience made me feel too much like a televangelist. At the time, I made a facetious pledge that, when I was able to resolve the problematic issues with the audio portion of our livestream, I was going to begin a worldwide televangelism campaign. Now, I find myself in the uncomfortable situation of having to fulfill that pledge. The audio for daily and Sunday Liturgies is greatly improved. Reluctantly, I must embark now on a new career.
There are several things that make me hesitant to engage in televangelism; among them is the obligatory fraud that must be perpetrated on my viewing audience. It is with a heavy heart, therefore, that I announce today that a I am offering a magical and mystical miracle cure for the coronavirus. For a mere $100 you can have your very own Holy-Covy. As I am reluctant to engage in this scam, I’m offering a discount if you purchase more than one: a paltry $150 for two Holy-Covies. (A Holy-Covy is a blessed stogie used for Covid prevention.)
Holy-Covies are hand selected, used cigar butts that are sustainably sourced from the trash bin of a local tobacconist. Each Holy-Covy comes with its own lanyard; when you wear the Holy-Covy around your neck, it protects you from coronavirus infection by enforcing social distancing (no one will want to get close to you while you’re wearing a fetid cigar butt around your neck). Every Holy-Covy comes with a 100% satisfaction guarantee: if you get sick, I’ll send you a free dirty ashtray. The ashtray filled with stale cigar ashes won’t make you feel any better, but it will make you grateful that Covid19 caused you to lose your sense of smell.
I’m not happy about having to scam my television audience, but I feel obligated to follow through on the commitment I made. I’m sure most people can sympathize with my plight. It is a common enough experience to find oneself confused about how to deal with an unfamiliar or difficult situation: we’re now in the sixth month of the pandemic, and we’re still struggling to adapt to a changed situation. I’m sure you find that you must respond to unwelcome or unfamiliar challenges that arise on an almost daily basis.
Our lives might be much more pleasant if there was a source of reliable guidance that would help us avoid regrettable or burdensome situations. If such guidance existed, I wonder if anyone would accept and follow it.
In today’s first reading, God speaks through the prophet Isaiah and says, “Observe what is right, do what is just.” (Isa. 56:1) This command sounds rather straightforward but is often a source of confusion. What is right? What is just? There are as many responses to those questions as there are people who respond.
It is popular in our culture to serve one’s own desires and call it right and just. Another common definition of right and just behavior is to do what pleases others. Some people define righteousness and justice as doing what avoids trouble. In today’s first reading, God says that the righteous and the just are those who “keep the Sabbath free from profanation and hold to the Covenant faithfully.” (Isa. 56:6)
Keeping the Sabbath free from profanation means to give God appropriate worship by refraining from pursuing one’s own interests on the Sabbath. Holding to the Covenant faithfully means to act charitably and responsibly toward one’s neighbor. To accept this definition of righteousness and justice requires that we reject the cultural values that make us feel obligated to engage in irresponsible actions, worship of our own desires, and negligence toward the poor.
As God’s definition of righteousness and justice is so countercultural, many people find that they are reluctant to live the life of faith. Ours is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and one of the most reluctant to give alms; most of us would prefer to blame the poor for their own hardships. As a society, we regret any limitations on our personal wants and desires; we’d rather do as we please without regard to other people. Most people in our society (and many in our Church), seem quite confused about how to dedicate even an hour weekly to worship of God; as a consequence, the idea of a whole day devoid of personal pursuits is impossible to comprehend.
The simple reason that so few choose to follow God’s will is that doing so looks like it might be uncomfortable, distasteful, or regrettable. God, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, says that the only truly regrettable choice is the choice not to do what is right and just.
The most widely ignored truth about human existence is that the disappointments, frustrations, and problems that plague us are telltale indications of the refusal to obey God’s will. Contrary to popular opinion, dissatisfactions and regrets are not the result of failing to get what one wants. Rather, an uncomfortable and burdensome life is the result of living wrongly.
The disturbing and confusing nature of the coronavirus pandemic provides an excellent opportunity to practice doing what is right and just. Are you overcome with fear about the possibility of becoming ill? If so, make an effort to comfort someone who is suffering. Are you annoyed at having to wear a mask in public or practice social distancing? If so, make the sacrifice of wearing the mask as an act of generosity toward others. Are you worried or bored or frustrated by the fact that the pandemic is dragging on with no end in sight? If so, forgive the brokenness of the world, and be an example of forgiveness to others.
Although it might appear to be an unlikely proposition, doing God’s will is a guarantee of happiness that endures forever. Failing to do God’s will, on the other hand, is a guarantee of a life filled with confusion and regrets. Isn’t it regrettable that the obvious choice is so unpopular?
First Mass of Fr. Joshua Bertrand – August 16, 2020
It’s a great blessing to preach at Fr. Joshua’s First Mass. Fr. Joshua was a student, and President of the Catholic Student Union, during the time that I was Director of the Catholic Student Center. It’s wonderful to be back here at my former spiritual home; I’m very grateful to be able to attend the First Mass of a former member of the Catholic Student Union.
My first pastoral assignment after Ordination was to a relatively large parish with a parochial school. The school’s faculty and staff were extraordinarily dedicated people who valued their Catholic Faith and wanted very much to hand that faith on to their students. In the four years that I was a parochial vicar at that parish, I came to value the friendship and camaraderie of the administrators and classroom teachers.
My friendship with the school faculty brought a great deal of enjoyment into my life, but it also brought a few challenges. One of those challenges came in the form of a request from one of the faculty members. One of the middle school homeroom groups was composed of what the entire faculty called “the bad seed.” The “bad seed” were the majority of the boys in the class; their behavior was anti-social and repulsive, even by the standards of middle school boys.
Rather early in the academic year, the homeroom teacher for the group grew frustrated with the boys’ rude and disruptive behavior. Jokingly, she asked if I could help. As it happened, I had just read a review of a book addressed to that age group. The book was titled, What Is a Man? The book had a fairly simple story line and lots of illustrations. I suggested it to the teacher and made a sarcastic comment along the lines of “even the kids in that class can understand this.”
The book was about an animal (I think it was a porcupine), who had heard of the existence of a creature called “Man,” but had never seen one. The porcupine made inquiries of all the other animals it knew, asking the question, “What is a man?” Each of the various animals responded with an idiosyncratic observation about the men they had encountered.
The rabbit said that a man had long legs that weren’t very good for hopping. The elephant said that a man had a short trunk that wasn’t very good for pulling leaves down from tall trees. The bear said that a man had a loose-fitting coat of fur that offered no protection against the winter cold. The moose said that a man had antlers that were small and unimpressive. The rest of the animals in the story gave similar responses.
The very entertaining nature of the book derived from the fact that, after the porcupine received a response from each successive animal, the book’s illustrator presented a slightly altered drawing of what the porcupine imagined a man to be. The drawings depicted an oddly shaped creature with rangy legs, a tiny elephant trunk in place of a nose, plaid fur, ears shaped like tiny moose antlers, and the like. The drawings were hilariously creative and captivated the imaginations of “the bad seed.”
During the course of the story, the porcupine wandered farther and farther from home in search of an answer to the question, “What is a man?” At the point when the porcupine was hopelessly lost, afraid, far from home, and without food or water, it was found by a man who picked it up, fed it, and returned it to its native habitat. The man looked nothing like the porcupine’s imagined shape drawn from the many responses of the many animals. In the end, the porcupine realized that a man was someone who was compassionate, trustworthy, and generous.
Having engaged the imaginations of “the bad seed,” the homeroom teacher turned the opportunity to her advantage by administering some old-fashioned Catholic guilt. She told the boys that if they hoped ever to grow into men someday, they had a lot of growing up to do. She went on to suggest that they were well behind the growth curve in that they acted in childish, rude, and off-putting ways. The lesson was lost on some of those boys, but the majority came to a change of heart; the rest of the academic year was a little more tolerable for the teacher and the other students.
The question that provided the title for the book What Is a Man? reminded me of another question that has many, disparate answers. Anyone who has paid attention to the changing nature of the Catholic community in the twenty-first century has probably noticed the wide variety of answers given to the question, “What is a priest?”
Some people say that a priest is an obsolete remnant of a feudal past. Others say that a priest is a broker or vendor for Sacraments and rituals. Still others say that a priest is an ecclesial middle manager, or an aspiring social worker, or a would-be televangelist. If the illustrator of the book What Is a Man? made a compilation of the various images of priesthood that are popular today, the drawing might depict a figure holding a royal scepter in one hand and a spreadsheet in the other. There would be a coin slot on the front of the figure and a delivery tray where rituals and sacred objects are dispensed; the figure would probably be standing in an enclosure similar to Lucy’s cardboard Psychiatrist’s office in the “Peanuts” cartoon.
At the risk of adding to confusion of images of the priesthood, I’d like to suggest an image of priesthood taken from the Scriptures.
In today’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah speaks on God’s behalf, saying, “Observe what is right, do what is just; for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed.” (Isa. 56:1) This command was uttered to the exiles who returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the City, the People, the Temple, and the Religion. It was spoken in quite specific circumstances, but it represents the consistent message of the Scriptures, namely, that God’s single desire is to see God’s People live faithfully according to the Covenant.
This message of renewal and reform was not limited to the prophets of ancient Israel. Jesus’ own ministry had the character of the prophetic vocation; he proclaimed the proximity of God’s Reign and called his hearers to repentance and renewal. His followers took on the prophet’s mantle to announce forgiveness of sins through baptism into Jesus’ death. The periods when the Church has experienced the greatest growth and the greatest vitality were those periods of time when ministers, preachers, and evangelizers followed the example of the Apostles’ prophetic vocation. For this reason, I would like to suggest that today, at this point in time, the appropriate response to the question, “What is a Priest?” might be to say, “A priest is one who imitates the prophetic vocation of Jesus and his apostles.” The priest as prophet might just be what the Church and the world need most today.
There is not an over-abundance of forgiveness in our society; nor is there a surplus of faithfulness, hope, or kindness. I might even go so far as to say that these virtues are as lacking in the community of the Church as they in secular society. What is needed today is to understand priesthood as a prophetic vocation: a divine calling to encourage the faithful, to call sinners to a change of heart, and to remind all people of God’s commands to “observe what is right and do what is just.” Priests exist to serve the Church; today, the Church is in great need of prophetic leaders who will give witness to the saving truth in the preaching of Jesus.
“What is a priest?” In the last analysis, each individual priest must answer that question for himself by discerning how to engage faithfully in pastoral ministry. Every priest’s answer is necessarily a mosaic of disparate responsibilities. I’d like to suggest that a priest is the inheritor of the prophetic vocations of the ancient servants of God, the Christian servants of God, and preeminently, Jesus the Suffering Servant and Son of God. A priest is one who calls God’s People to observe God’s will, calls sinners to turn back to the path of justice, and announces that God’s Reign is near at hand.
Fr. Joshua, as you begin your ministry as a priest, it is my prayer that you will discharge your pastoral ministry duties faithfully and that, by your example, you will teach God’s People to observe what is right and to do what is just.