Sunday, February 7, 2010

Here I am, Lord, send me!

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C

“What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips… your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged… Here I am, send me.”

“Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man… Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.”

In my five years here in the islands the most important, the most pressing and yet the most daunting existential question which I have had to face and which the Church here in the region has to face is that of discerning and promoting vocations to the priesthood and to the religious life. The existential importance of this question for the Church anywhere in the world is a given, but the revival patterns, especially those which seem to apply in the U.S.A., just don’t seem to follow here, and hence my categorization of the challenge of seeking vocations and bringing them to fruition as daunting.

I’ll offer one example. Despite scandals, confusion, the general destabilization of the classic family model, in the U.S. men keep presenting themselves for priesthood, good men. If their home diocese is in chaos due to poor leadership, they may be put off for a time and end up studying for the diocese of their choice, but we still hear the ADSUM up north and many times all it takes is a change of bishops at home to give these men the courage to return to the place of their baptism and say “Here I am, send me”. That does not seem to be the case here in the region. Why?

I asked a younger priest in one of the French speaking dioceses, who is responsible for a house of discernment for men, as well as diocesan vocations director: “Father, when I was a boy, lots of us felt called to the priesthood as children and wanted in our own childish way to respond to God. This explains the big minor seminaries of yesteryear. If a boy didn’t respond, then he was obviously fighting something and gave in at some later point and came to the seminary. Is the world so different today?” Father told me that from his contacts with young people that children did indeed still feel called, but the noise, the chaos of adolescence completely numbs and deafens them to that call. He thinks that most vocations are all but snuffed out in the adolescent years. What to do? The culture is as vehemently opposed to minor seminaries as it is to boarding schools these days. You can’t pretend to take a young man away from home before 18 years of age. Father corrected me and said he still has 24 year olds whose parents are fighting their departure from home! What to do?

As I say, this is only one aspect of the drama. There are other examples and other issues. It is rare to find the perspicacity of my Frenchman, when it comes to identifying and encouraging vocations these days too. You have to know what you’re doing when you start clearing away the “weeds” in a person’s life and begin cultivating him. You have to know whether there is that “depth of soil” which permits of cultivation. It is only right that we pray for good standard bearers, who will rally the young and idealistic to them, who will mentor and form them, who will give them the outlets they need for responding in some fashion and with the passage of time in an ever more articulate fashion. The readings for this Sunday however tell me that there is something more.

Isaiah had a vision of the Lord present in His Temple. The nothing-short-of-miraculous catch of fish brought Peter to his knees at the feet of the Holy One of God, “Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man…” It is easy enough to point at the noise and chaos which fills the average adolescent life, but it may be more to the point to say that the children of our age are deprived of the sacred or can experience no sense of the sacred. Is it so? Why is it so?

St. Francis of Assisi, as a vain and chaotic youth, had his God experience which he interpreted at first as a command to rebuild the little church of San Damiano. St. Ignatius of Loyola, with a cannon ball to the leg, was immobilized and given quiet time away from the thunder of battle to choose between books about knightly chivalry or romance and the lives of the saints. For both of them, however, the Lord’s glory filled His Temple. I get a bit sick at heart wondering what the odds are that young people today might happen upon a Catholic church where worship takes place in spirit and in truth.

Lots of priests, even some bishops I know, are puzzled by why folk are drawn away from parish liturgy to the stillness of devotions and perpetual adoration. The longer I listen and observe the more convinced I am that it should come as no surprise at all that people who are serious about God might want to escape or at least not put too much stock into their Sunday obligation. After the Exile, with the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem, the Holy of Holies remained empty for lack of an Ark of the Covenant. It was a focus and a space for God the Most High. Is Sunday Mass in most of our parishes a focus and a space for God, lifting our thoughts to Jesus, Who became a Man like us in all things but sin, Who suffered and died for us upon the Cross, Who rose again on the third day and is now seated at the Right Hand of the Father? Not hardly! In some places, folks enter into church as if it were an auditorium. The building itself has no focal point. Vapid lyrics and trite music, substitutions of psalmody with anything but, dance numbers, holding hands and hug sessions interrupt the flow in the unbloody renewal of the Sacrifice offered once and for all on Calvary. Holy Communion may seem to be neither nor, as distribution stations scatter through the church toward front and back; the Body of Christ is pressed into a hand and we’re off and running with hardly a pause.

Let me just drop that “bomb” and ask priests to look at how they organize worship. I will repeat now at six months into celebrating Mass here at home only ad Orientem, that if at all possible it does help the focus. The urgency of feeding the flock and providing the space and the silence to encounter the Lord and curtailing the emission of all sorts of “gases” has reached the moment of truth. The disappearance of the Church in North Africa was not overnight, but it was complete. The “if only’s” are water over the dam. Here in the region the time is now to help today’s little Samuels focus like old Eli did so long ago.

“What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips… your sin is taken away, your iniquity is purged… Here I am, send me.”

“Leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man… Do not be afraid; from now on it is men you will catch.”

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