Thursday night I returned from a vacation in Italy. I prayed for you, my parish, at the tomb of St. Peter, and at the tombs of St. Francis and St. Clare in Assisi.
Two years ago, when I first arrived here at St. John’s, I told you that I was in love. Today, as I look forward to a new parish assignment from the Bishop, I want to reflect with you what it has meant to me to be your priest in this parish.
As I told you then, I had made a choice after becoming a widower to continue to live my life in love. This is a choice. Being a priest is not a job or a career in the ordinary sense. I imagine that a priest could live as if it were simply a job, but then, that is not where you find the joy of the priesthood. The deepest joys of the priesthood are found in love, in serious relationships, just like the deepest joys of marriage. Living in love means doing real things with real people, doing serious things with real people.
Two years ago I told you that as we learned to fall in love with one another, we would gradually lose our fear and hesitancy to have those conversations which lovers must have as we grew in intimacy and common purpose. And it seems that we have. I promised that we would speak earnestly about how to inherit eternal life. We have discussed that there will be a judgment day. I said that we would speak together about fidelity and obedience to Mother Church and to one another, chastity and the way we would learn to respect one another, and about the simplicity of life with which we would live our lives together, sharing our gifts for the common good. My hope is that I have fulfilled my promises to you as I learned how to be a priest for you.
I can honestly say, that you have surpassed my expectations in many, many ways. This is a faithful Catholic parish. And, for example, on one measure of virtue, the virtue of generosity, you surpass most other parishes in the area. St. John’s parish supports the Catholic Services Appeal of the Diocese almost twice as much as all other parishes in our deanery, even though our median household income is approximately half the income of the rest of the Hays County households. Our Society of St. Vincent de Paul is one of the strongest ministries to the poor in our Diocese. This is simply amazing generosity, and a sign of increasing spiritual maturity. I applaud you. Keep growing in that direction. It leads to heaven.
I said that I hoped that by learning to love one another we will lead one another to heaven. I stand here today to tell you that I believe we have been doing that. Fr. Victor and I have spoken with you about sin and grace, original sin and forgiveness of sin. With Fr. Victor’s leadership, we have worshipped well together and increased the beauty of our liturgies. We have mourned together, and celebrated life together. What we have done has been to share virtue with one another, encouraging one another to live lives of virtue.
This is how the Kingdom of God comes among us, in fidelity and love, and in the hope of eternal life that we seek together, because we can’t do this alone.
In Jesus’ parable, we can see how God, working through the Church, spreads the Gospel like a farmer spreading seed. The farmer may not be aware of the growth of the corn growing in the soil, but, nevertheless, it does grow and mature. As a Church we witness to the Word of God as seed for the faith of the world. We evangelize. God makes the Church grow. Through the Church we nurture and encourage the growth of faith, but God assures its growth.
We must trust that man cannot block the coming of the Kingdom of God. While I was in Rome, I reflected upon the amazing presence of the worldwide Church of Rome, in Rome, from all over planet earth, along with people from every race and nation with whom I was just one more pilgrim in Rome.
It was also obvious that the Church is so very human, with its warts and imperfections, just like all of us. There is a great deal of “soap opera” in the Church. If you have been following the Church in the news lately, you may have heard about recent scandals. One of my friends in Rome is a priest who is also an advisor to the Pope. We were speaking about the current scandals and he reassured me, saying, “Mark, everyone loves a good soap opera, but it is all meaningless distraction. Little of it is really important. Much of it is contrived, as it has been throughout the 2,000-year history of the Church. The real history of the Church is the history of holiness.”
I can see that. While some people are even saying in the press that they can perceive the end of the Roman Catholic Church in current events and scandals, nothing could be further from the truth. We are reassured by Jesus who said,
And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church,* and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. (Mt 16:18)
In the parable of the “Mustard Seed”, Jesus says,
To what shall we compare the kingdom of God,
or what parable can we use for it?
It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.
But once it is sown, it springs up and becomes the largest of plants and puts forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in its shade.
Our faith is the “mustard seed”. The world may see it as small and insignificant, but it is mighty, and growing and changing the world. This is the Kingdom of God. The Roman Catholic Church is alive and courageous and holy. The Roman Catholic Church is hated and despised by the world, but we must have faith that the world hates Jesus before it hates us.
The Church is our home. We are safe in its branches, and we offer safety to others who come and seek comfort and relief. We don’t offer the world’s treasures, but we promise the treasures of heaven and eternal life for those who are faithful.
The history of the Church is the history of holiness. This is the message for pilgrims to Rome and Assisi, and to this altar. Be courageous in your faith. Hold true to your faith and grow in virtue. We are winning, despite the frequent news reports to the contrary. God is going to win over the world. Don’t miss Mass. Go to Confession regularly, frequently. Hold on tight to Mother Church! This is the only boat that will get you home safely out of the storm. Thank you for accepting me and nurturing me as your priest.