This is the homily I gave this morning to priestly candidates in our SOLT Asia Pacific formation house.
If you have trouble listening, click here.
We read in the Program of Priestly Formation, the foundational document we use in the formation of priestly candidates:
"The basic principle of human formation is to be found in Pastores dabo vobis, no. 43: the human personality of the priest is to be a bridge and not an obstacle for others in their meeting with Jesus Christ the Redeemer of the human race."What does this mean, to be a bridge not an obstacle? Basically it means he is balanced, and thus capable of bearing the yoke of pastoral ministry squarely, joyfully, yet prudently on his shoulders:
"These qualities are needed for them to be balanced people, strong and free, capable of bearing the weight of pastoral responsibilities. They need to be educated to love the truth, to be loyal, to respect every person, to have a sense of justice, to be true to their word, to be genuinely compassionate, to be men of integrity and, especially, to be balanced in judgment and behavior.”Is this what Jesus meant when he said, in the Gospel for today:
"Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am meek and humble of heart;
and you will find rest for yourselves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
Does his yoke mean here the yoke of priestly ministry that young candidates to the priesthood like yourselves, would one day hope to carry?
NO! The yoke of priesthood is not easy. It is not light. It isn't a life of yippidy dippidy doo da I-get-to-do-whatever-I-want. It is a deep sacrifice, and if you place the very heavy burden of priesthood on a little boy's shoulders, the weight would crush him. That is why the Church documents on priesthood stress so much this idea of balance, or prudent judgment, someone who is able to really see things and people as they are, and respond accordingly, thus becoming in their very personality not an obstacle to Christ, but a living bridge, a means of communion with Christ. This is why our vocational screening of candidates has become so strict, why we think it is a success not a failure for someone to leave if they don't think they can handle the pressure, why we are not so carefree about our formation, why here in the formation house there is a very clear sense of discipline, duty, and responsibility. It is to emphasize to you as clearly as we possibly can, the weight of priestly ministry is not an easy yoke, or a light burden.
So what is Jesus referring to in the Gospel? What is he really talking about?
Well first lets take a step back and look at where we are. We are in Advent. Were you listening to the Office of Readings for today, when St Augustine says,
So what did God promise that Jesus is saying to fulfill in the Gospel for today? In Advent, if you have noticed, what is extremely common is to have a first reading that is fulfilled in the Gospel for the day. Today the promise God makes in the first reading of the prophet Isaiah is:"God wanted us to be able to see the way in which his promises were redeemed when he began to discharge them. And so the time of the prophets was, as we have often said, the foretelling of the promises. He promised eternal salvation, everlasting happiness with the angels, an immortal inheritance, endless glory, the joyful vision of his face, his holy dwelling in heaven, and after resurrection from the dead no further fear of dying. This is as it were his final promise, the goal of all our striving. When we reach it, we shall ask for nothing more."
"He gives strength to the fainting;Strength. Yesterday the word was Comfort, which from the Latin means com (expressing intensive force) + fortis (strong). Tomorrow's readings it says that God will grasp our right hands saying, "Fear not worm Jacob and maggot Israel." So it is strengthening week of Advent. The grace this week we should be very alive to is draw strength so that we can be open to the Lord's coming at Christmas.
for the weak he makes vigor abound.
Though young men faint and grow weary,
and youths stagger and fall,
They that hope in the LORD will renew their strength,
they will soar as with eagles’ wings;They will run and not grow weary,
walk and not grow faint.
What makes us weary? Sin! The spirit of this world is full of weariness, but that is only because it is full of sin and espoused to sin. The devil makes us weary because he entices us to sin. It is God that makes us strong. God makes us young and alive, giving us zest for life, real enthusiasm.
Pope Francis said to young people gathered for world youth day:
"When we look only for success, pleasure and possessions, and we turn these into idols, we may well have moments of exhilaration, an illusory sense of satisfaction, but ultimately we become enslaved, never satisfied, always looking for more. It is a tragic thing to see a young person who “has everything”, but is weary and weak.Man was weary because of sin, because of the very deep burden of his own unredeemed humanity. So the Savior was promised to bring strength, comfort, and life.
So what is the yoke that is easy and the burden that is light? Love. Divine charity of God, St Paul says, "bears all things." Does he say that Joseph, Samson, or Christopher bears all things, or Fr Sam bears all things? NO! Love bears everything. What is so redeeming about the Redeemer is that he reveals that the only burden God wants us to carry is to remain in his Love. A son who knows he is loved by his father can do anything for him, even die on a cross for him bearing the weight of all sin. This was Jesus' strength. Remember right before this passage Jesus says, "I bless you Father...no one knows the Father but the Son and no one knows the Son but the Father and anyone to whom he reveals him"?
God the Father is what the Redeemer, what the little babe in Bethlehem came to bring. You can carry any weight if you have the Love of Abba Father. You can soar with eagles wings, run and not grow weary, walk and not grow faint. You can, God willing someday, carry the burden of priesthood solidly on your shoulders and it not a burden but the weight of joy. Every single day of my priesthood, even the most crushing, heavy, and difficult, have been pure joy! Why? Because I am so talented, witty, and good looking, because people love my homilies, because I am so physically fit? NO!! Because of my Father - because Abba is my Father, and if he is with me, I can do all things in him who strengthens me. Realistically, people love priests simply because they impart the Father's blessings and graces.
The places where we get this strength of love of the Father are:
1. Holy Mass. Never. Ever. Let a day go by without receiving holy communion, and never let a day go by as a priest without celebrating holy Mass, even if there is no one to celebrate with you. Mass is about Abba, primarily. It is about encountering the Love of the Father.
2. Blessed Mother Mary: This week of Advent, which we have dubbed strength week, began with the Immaculate Conception, and if there is anything that gives a man strength, puts heart into his heart and soul into his soul it is the Immaculate Purity of Our Lady. She makes strong men. Her Immaculate tender motherly affection can warm us up to the Love of Abba when life is difficult. She is consolation of the afflicted.
3. Confession. What is the biggest burden? You are! Or rather your sins will be the heaviest weight. Get rid of your sins. Go to confession every week. I go as a priest once or twice a week. i don't want the slightest thing dampening my joy and burdening my spirit. I want to remain in the Love of God that bears all things.
4. The Word of God: love reading the Scriptures, meditating and delighting in it, especially putting it into practice. The Gospel for the day is a bathing and washing in the Spirit and the Word.
5. Graced friendships: You meet Jesus and he brings you to all his friends. In seminary, you must learn to be good friends, not just good brothers, but good friends, loyal, kind, receptive, accepting, helping each other carry the burden of life together. This pattern of holy friendship will become the pattern of priestly, or pastoral, friendship with people, that you need to be able to make friends with others and learn how to listen, serve, and respond to them with magnanimity, hope, and active charity. But charity begins at home.