A Lenten conversion
Dominican Father Philip Neri Powell, professor of homiletics at Notre Dame Seminary, offered the following reflection to his brother priests March 16 at the Lenten Morning of Prayer for Priests at St. Maria Goretti Church. Archbishop Gregory Aymond also writes about the morning in his regular column.
We are in the season of returns: between birth and rebirth; between the birth of Christ and our rebirth in him. But but before we can be reborn, we must return.
That’s what we do in Lent. We return. We bring ourselves back to the Lord, our triumphs, our wounds, our failures, our modest victories. We bring it all back to him and we lay it all out for his judgment.
If we were to rely on ourselves alone to accomplish the necessary return, we would be forever lost in a humiliating grind of gathering up and packing all that we have done and all that we’ve left undone.
And even with a little help from our friends, we’d forget a thing or two, leave behind some fault or drop a sin or two along the way.
But because we are heirs to the kingdom, because we are the adopted sons of the Father, we never truly do anything alien. We can only bring ourselves back to the Lord with his help through his mercy.
There can be no question about whether we can do anything good without him. We can’t. So the question is, when we return, when we return loaded down with all that we have to sacrifice, to whom do we return?
When you return to the Lord in his mercy, whom do you see? That’s a bizarre question to ask a Catholic church filled with priests.
Think for just a moment about your failures, your faults, your omissions. Think for moment about your idols. What lesser good have you worshiped instead of your greatest good?
I could list mine for you, but I only have seven minutes. We could probably all list a few: the idol of popularity or an aversion to controversy; the need to be right, to be vindicated; the need to be seen as holy as opposed to actually being holy; a need to be revered, to be honored; a need to be thought particularly intelligent or pastoral or relevant; a need to be always innovative or precise; a need to be sought after and followed and listened to.
All of these are goods – lesser goods – and all of these are perfectly good human needs. But to lift them up and to place them beside the greatest good or to use them as replacements for the greatest good threatens not only our vocation as ministers of the Gospel but also threatens our access to the only one who can save us.
We become who or what we love. Idols of silver and gold cannot see; they cannot breathe. Idols of popularity and comfort and power cannot hear. They cannot speak. So who will return to God with all that we have to sacrifice? We will return to the only God capable of receiving and blessing all that we have and all that we truly are.
Scripture urges us, “Heed the Lord’s voice with all your heart and with all your soul.” That’s with all my heart and all my soul. This is the Lord’s way of admonishing me to leave nothing behind in my return to him. I can’t hide a favorite sin or stash away just one – just one – well-loved idol. I can’t do this and expect that my return to the Lord will be anything but meaningless and empty. I cannot serve God in spirit and in truth if I am spiritually half-blinded, mostly deaf, struggling to breathe and starving.
Critical work to do
Our work for God’s people, the preaching of the Good News and the care of souls is too important to be done in half-measures. Priestly service in his name requires the discipline of a well-trained soldier, the zeal of a prophet, the authenticity of a saint and, most importantly, the love of a father for his family.
We’re not talking about moral perfection here. We’re not talking about human impeccability. We’re talking about desire, wanting what we lack.
It’s one thing to lack zeal or lack strength or love, but it’s quite another to lack these essentials in priestly service and never desire them. What we lack, all that we lack, we can receive when we turn again to the Lord and ask.
The Lord, your God, will change your want and take pity on you.
We are in the season of return. After waiting and rejoicing, we step into the long season of turning again to God. Who or what do you see when you turn to your God?
Ego, disordered passion, power? Or do you see the source and summit of your call to serve in sacrificial love, the source of your strength and hope. When you turn again to your God, do you see the summit of your end in the strength of union with him? What we lack to serve we are given in abundance when we open our hearts and open our minds to receive the gift that only God can give us – himself.
There is room in the human heart for only one God, one ruler, one source and motivator for loving one another perfectly. Everything else, everyone else, must be sacrificed, made holy through surrender so that all he is is free to equip us for service.
Scripture teaches us that the Lord provides, and our task is to receive his provision with praise and with thanksgiving so that we can get on with the work we have been given to accomplish.
Ask for what you lack to serve, and receive from the Lord all that you need.