Most of us have probably had the experience of dealing with someone who is annoyingly nitpicky, who insists on fussing over unimportant details to the degree that it’s impossible to get anything done. Maybe it’s the person who insists on correcting every little detail while you’re speaking so that it’s impossible to have a conversation. Such an experience can be very frustrating, and at times we can just want to scream at someone who is missing the forest for the trees.
That is the kind of situation in which our Lord finds Himself in today’s Gospel passage. The Pharisees are trying to catch Him in a trap because his disciples are not following the rigorous Jewish purity laws that regulate the precise way that things and people must be cleansed either before eating or after contact with non-Jewish people. The problem with the Pharisees is not so much that they perform these rituals – they are not at all bad things, since they were given to the Jews by God – but rather that they have focused so much on them that they have neglected more important works of charity.
Our Lord condemns the Pharisees with very strong words, “Well did Isaiah prophesy about you hypocrites, as it is written: This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me.” He does so because the Pharisees are advocating a superficial and superstitious practice of religion. Their practice of religion is superstitious because it places more trust in human works in cleansing cups and dishes than it does in God’s mercy, forgiveness, and love. The Pharisees’ version of religion seeks to manipulate God into conceding favors based on ritualistic purity.
Their practice of religion is superficial because it only reaches the surface of their actions and does not reach their hearts. In today’s epistle, St. Paul teaches us what true religion looks like: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Here, then, are the two keys that the Pharisees should have prioritized above their ritualistic purity: the service of charity towards the least among us, and purity of heart. They observed the rules of their religion, but they did not let them sink in and move their hearts to an authentic love of God and neighbor. They just stayed on the surface.
In a similar way, we need to be on guard against a superficial practice of religion. It is easy for us to fall into a pattern of doing the minimum: going to Holy Mass on Sundays, going to confession once or twice a year, occasionally saying some prayers, and so forth. But we ought to ask ourselves: Have I allowed my practice of religion really to transform my life? What is different in my life because I am Catholic?
St. Paul, as I just mentioned, gives us two ways to examine whether or not we have been transformed in Christ: works of mercy and our growth in holiness. The first sign of someone who is truly in love with God, who practices religion not merely superficially, is his service to the materially and spiritually poor. Pope Francis has called for an Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy to emphasize to us God’s mercy and to invite us to participate in it. Thus, in our parish we will soon begin to focus on the works of mercy in an organized way. In the meantime, it would be good for us to consider how often we participate in God’s love for our neighbors by performing the corporal works of mercy, which traditionally are listed as: to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to clothe the naked, to shelter the homeless, to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, and to bury the dead.
St. Paul’s second indication is “to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Here St. Paul reminds us of the three sources of sin: the flesh, the devil, and the world. In our day and age, the world presents a particularly pernicious source of temptation to sin. We know that there are so many sources of temptation in our culture with which we are bombarded on a daily basis. The fight to resist these cultural influences is an arduous one, to stand up for the truth of the Gospel and to resist a culture that tells us that religion is for the weak.
In this regard, I think particularly of the importance of family life. The experience of so many families here at St. John’s has been one of the great joys of my time here with all of you this summer. I have been inspired especially by the witness to life on the part of members even of my own generation who have chosen to sacrifice of themselves in the sacrament of marriage and have welcomed children so generously. This is a bold and counter-cultural statement that speaks more eloquently to the world of the beauty of God’s love than any words of mine.
Family life, though, is something to be cherished and guarded. Parents must take real and practical steps to keep their children’s minds and hearts pure, even from a young age. Oftentimes, especially as children enter their teenage years, it can be tempting to begin to let things slip, for parents to tolerate behaviors that they otherwise would not have out of fear of being too strict or of losing their children’s affection and trust. In this way I would remind you that the work of a parent is never done, and teenagers are more in need than ever of their parents’ guidance and loving support. I believe firmly that it is when young people are given high expectations that they will reach their true God-given potential, and the moral life is absolutely no exception to this. God has called each of your children to be saints, and they need your help to get there.
St. Paul gives us another indication for how we can live a true practice of religion that will help us to make it to heaven: “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you and is able to save your souls.” God’s word was planted in us at our Baptism, when we became sons and daughters of God, who took up his dwelling in our souls. The rest of our lives have been marked by whether or not we have continued to humbly welcome God’s presence in our lives. If we desire to live out a true practice of our religion, then living in accord with God’s presence in us means concerning ourselves more with doing His will than doing our will. We should ask ourselves on a regular basis: do I seek to do God’s will? Do I regard His plans for my life as more important than my own? Do I take time to consider God’s will as a part of making decisions both big and small?
While it is important at all times in our life to follow God’s will, it is the young who must most closely consider God’s will for their lives. Whenever I speak to groups of young people I always remind them: “pray every single day that God will show you His will for your life, your vocation.”
As you all know, there is a great shortage of young men and women who welcome the Lord’s will by following Him in the priesthood and religious life. However, I am firmly convinced that there is no such thing as a vocations crisis. The real crisis in our society, and even within the Church, is a crisis of family life. Vocations to the priesthood and religious life will inevitably (though not exclusively) come from families who live their faith with dedication and zeal. Seeing, then, so many families here at this parish who have so generously welcomed God’s word into their lives through their children, I have to believe that God has big plans for the young people of this parish.
Dear young people, God has amazing plans for your life, far better than you could ever imagine. He made you out of His great love for you and knows you better than you or anyone else could ever know you. His plans for your life are carefully fitted just for you, plans that will make you far happier than your own. It is in doing God’s will, in generously responding to God’s call to us, that we will find the happiness He desires for us, both in this life and in the next in Heaven. I am convinced that there are young people right now, in this very church, whom the Lord is calling to serve Him as priests and religious. Ask the Lord if it might be you.
I have not been a priest for very long, just 2 ½ months, but I can tell you that it has been better than I could ever have imagined. Becoming a priest is not an easy thing to do. It takes years of thoughtful, prayerful, and often heart-wrenching discernment, and then years of study and prayer. But there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I would do it all over again. Even if just for this summer with you, even if just for one Holy Mass or one confession, to bring Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist to just one soul, to reconcile just one sinner with God the Father, I would do all the years of study, prayer, and sleepless nights of wrestling with God’s will over and over and over again, because the joy of being able to bring others to Christ is worth far more than any earthly reward.
I can say without question I have an even greater love for the priesthood now than ever before, and I want to thank you all for helping me to find that. The priesthood is all the more beautiful when the people to whom we priests bring the Lord receive Him with such love. For your love for Jesus in the Most Holy Eucharist, for your sincere and heart-felt confessions, for your desire to do God’s will in your lives, for the many ways in which you have shown your love for Christ through me, his unworthy priest, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Thank you for teaching me about what it means to be a priest. I hope that I have taught you something in return.
At the back of the church after Mass you will find some cards commemorating my priestly ordination that I invite you to take, if you do not already have one, as a reminder to pray for me. The Latin words about my name, “Semet ipsum exinanivit” are from St. Paul’s Letter to the Hebrews on the priesthood of Christ. “He emptied Himself.” I left it in the Latin because it captures a sense that is hard to translate into English – it would be something like, “He poured out His very own self.” This is the heart of the priesthood, because it is the heart of Christ. On the cross, Christ completely emptied Himself, becoming worse than a slave for you and for me, and this is my goal in the priesthood as well. At the core of the priest’s work and his very life is an emptying of Himself, of putting aside His own interests, desires, and even his personality to take on Christ. And so this summer I have tried, more than giving myself to you, to give you Christ. I hope that in some small way I have succeeded. Please continue to pray for me, that I might be completely emptied of myself, so that Christ might be everything in me. May God bless you.
Image: Juan de Mesa, Nuestro Padre Jesus del Gran Poder. Seville, Spain. 1620.