Sunday, Wk 21, Year B
Joshua asks the people of Israel: “choose today whom you will serve.” This is a fundamental question for us now, and most certainly it has been an important question in my life. Not least was it a key question when I decided to leave behind the life I had led and follow Christ as his priest. Let me tell you a little about how I come to be here before you today.
Growing up a Catholic, having been baptised as a baby, meant that I went to Catholic schools, went to Church regularly and even served at Mass. I think it’s fair to say until I was in my mid teens I was a good Catholic; whatever good means. I recall as a child watching the priest during the elevation of the host and knowing that one day I would do that. I did not want to be a priest. I didn’t even realise that only a priest could do this. No, I wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or even a barrister. I wanted to help people.
Anyway, I stopped serving at Mass, even stopped going to Mass and there were huge rows at home about this. There were many reasons why I decided not to fulfil the promises made for me at my baptism, indeed not to keep the promises I made to God myself. At the heart of the problem seemed that I was growing up and growing away from God. I never stopped believing in God, though it did, at times come close to that, but I just didn’t believe the Church was best placed to interpret the will of God. I didn’t think that men with white hair living in Rome could tell me what I should and shouldn’t do. I think it’s a common enough problem and, of course, it’s really not about the Church but rather that I was deciding the doctrine, or teachings, of Jesus were just too difficult. I, like those in today’s Gospel, was one who said: “This is intolerable language. How could anyone accept it?”
It’s true to say that our Faith challenges us at time, and rightly so. The easy option is to simply reject those parts of our Faith, or the parts of the Mystery of Christ, which don’t suit us. But in the end, like St Paul teaches; “this mystery has many implications.” My seeming rejection of the Church, which would last nearly 20 years, never led to me being rejected by Christ. Rather, I now see, He waited for my return and it came in the most unexpected of ways.
I was at work surfing the internet, as you do, and anyone who has surfed the net will know that it is very easy to click from one page to the next and before you know it, you are looking at something completely different. I ended up looking at ukpriest.org, which is a web site all about formation for the priesthood. To cut a long story short, as they say, I went to see my parish priest (that’s when I found out which church it was) and he very gently listened to my tale of woe. At the end of an hour long chat, I suggested that I wanted to be a priest: this from a man who had barely stepped foot in a church for nearly two decades.
He gently encouraged me to come to Mass regularly, to become involved in the parish and to see where the good Lord was leading me. Like the psalm says: “taste and see that the Lord is good.” I did taste and see, and after a few months of discernment applied to the Archdiocese to be considered for priesthood. When Archbishop Vincent said yes, I was totally shocked. I truly believed he’d ask me to wait a couple of years but he didn’t. He sent me to Spain, to Valladolid for a year, and then to Oscott for six years – which I have just completed. Where the time has gone, I do not know.
How did I come, in a few short years, from rejecting much of what the Church teaches to being today an officer of the Church, one who is expected to uphold the teachings of the Church? Well, it’s a long and complex story and far more than I can cover here. Save to say that I have come to see, as you already know, and St Paul teaches, that the Church is you and I. It is not some distant institution in far off lands but rather it is the Body of Christ. It is the mystery which “applies to Christ and the Church”, as St Paul tells us. It is the head and body together. As we can no more separate our body from our head, so we cannot separate the Church from Christ. A rejection of the Church is a rejection of the Son of God himself. Wow, a big decision to make and not one that a young lad with his whole life ahead of him can make easily.
For me, my foolish ways were soon forgiven and the path toward priesthood became a very easy one. In fact, as I journeyed ever closer to Jesus and to become the priest he wants me to be, a priest for you; I came to see that it was in his holy consolation that I longed to be. Just like St Peter says; “Lord, who shall we go to? You have the message of eternal life... you are the Holy One of God.”
But in the end it is not me who chose to be a priest; rather it is Christ who chose me. Our readings, today, teach us one thing above all, however, and that is that whilst it is true to say He chooses us, we are always free to make our own decisions. Joshua asks the tribes to choose and Jesus asks the Twelve to choose. Just like our Faith, when pushed to the limit, we are free to choose Christ, just as I accepted His call to the priesthood.
Let me end with a tale in being faithful; faithful to the Sunday Eucharist, a small and regular commitment we can make to Christ and to one another as the Church.
There was a Catholic man who would always say to his wife on Sunday morning, “You can go to Mass for both of us”. One night he dreamed that he and his wife died and together to heaven’s gate. St Peter asked, “Are you Mr and Mrs Smith?” The couple both nodded their heads. “Well, Mrs Smith can come in for both of you”, declared the saint. Church membership is not necessarily an elevator to heaven.