31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
November 5, 2017
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today’s readings are difficult for a priest to hear.
In the first reading, from Malachi in the Old Testament,
God calls out the Jewish temple priests, saying:
“And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
“If you do not listen…. of your blessing I will make a curse.”
And in the gospel Jesus similarly goes after the Jewish leaders of His day:
the Pharisees and their scribes.
He repeatedly derides them, saying things like:
“do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.”
It’s important to realize here that in Malachi, God is not criticizing the priesthood,
He’s not against priests as priests.
He’s against BAD priests.
And how does he define a “bad priest”?
“You have turned aside from the way,
and have caused many to falter by your instruction;
…you have made void the covenant of Levi
…. you do not keep my ways,
…. violating the covenant of our fathers…”
They’re bad priests because although they’ve been given so much,
they abuse and waste it all.
They are the custodians of all the treasures of God’s revelation
handed down through the teaching of Moses and the prophets,
but they don’t hand it on to the people, and they don’t live by it themselves.
Instead they lead the people into sin by their bad example,
so contrary to the covenant.
They’ve abused the blessing of the priesthood,
and now the priesthood will become a curse for them
—they will be punished for being bad priests.
And in the Gospel Jesus does the same thing to the Pharisees and scribes.
Now, as a backdrop,
remember that the chief priests of the Jewish temple during Jesus’ time
were Sadducees, not Pharisees.
But the Sadducees didn’t believe in the whole Old Testament, just parts of it,
and so they were not very faithful to “the covenant of their fathers”
–they weren’t very good Jews, much less good priests.
Which is why the pagan Romans put them in charge of the Temple.
So when Jesus says that it’s the Pharisees who
“have taken their seat on the chair of Moses,”
He is indirectly, but clearly, criticizing the Sadducee priests
for being the same kind of bad priests that we find criticized in Malachi.
So then He turns to the Pharisees as the only orthodox Jews around,
and recognizes them as the de facto leaders of Israel
—just as the priests should be.
But then He criticizes them for being bad leaders.
“They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love …seats of honor in synagogues…
and the salutation ‘Rabbi.’
Now, a phylactery is a tiny box that held a tiny piece of scripture in it.
And pious Jews would wear this on their foreheads or wrists
to show that they were obedient to the covenant.
Nothing wrong with that in itself—it’s like wearing a crucifix around your neck:
it was a public witness to their faith in God.
And tassels were nothing horrible either.
Pious Jews would wear them on the hems of their garments
as a sign of their faith that God had called them to be his very own people.
In fact, in the book of Numbers God tells them to do this:
“…make tassels on the corners of [your] garments
…that you may look upon it
and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them.”
Which is probably why Jesus himself wore tassels on his garment,
as the Gospel tells us in 4 different places.
The problem with the Pharisees and their phylacteries and tassels,
was not that they wore them, but that they made a big deal of them
and then didn’t live up to what they symbolized.
He’s calling them hypocrites:
they only pretend keep the covenant in an outstanding way,
when in fact they don’t.
Again, like the priests of Malachi’s time and Jesus’ time,
the Pharisees hold a treasure in their hands, but they abuse it,
using it to make themselves look good,
and leading their people to hell by their bad example.
They had received many blessings,
but now their blessings would become a curse.
Nowadays we have the same problem in the Church.
For the last few decades we’ve seen too many priests
abuse their blessings as priests.
Most notably we saw this a few years ago with all the stories
of priests who abused their position of authority and trust
as spiritual fathers, to sexually abuse their children.
As Jesus says elsewhere of the hypocritical Pharisees:
“You snakes! You brood of vipers!
How will you escape the sentence of hell?”
But there has also been a less publicized way
in which priests abused their blessings,
a way that was, in an important sense, just as bad as those sexual cases.
Catholic priests are the custodians of all the riches of our Catholic faith,
handed down through the apostles and their successors,
and clarified by the great theologian saints through the centuries.
Truly what can be called, in the words of Malachi, “the covenant of our fathers.”
But all too often in the last few decades
too many Catholic priests have abused that blessing.
Like Malachi’s priests, they abandoned the covenant of our fathers.
Like Jesus’ Pharisees they made a big deal about their importance as teachers,
pridefully loving public attention, and being called experts, and visionaries.
These Catholic priests widened their metaphorical phylacteries,
pointing to all their special learning and knowledge of things
their predecessors didn’t understand.
And they lengthened their tassels, claiming to be the truly special ones,
chosen by God to enlighten the Church with new teachings that
the apostles, fathers and saints of ages past would have never recognized.
They exalted themselves, and humbled our fathers in the faith, priests like
St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Francis de Sales.
These modern priests knew more, they knew better.
This used to be called the heresy of Gnosticism,
but today these modern Pharisee-priests call it enlightened “discernment.”
Sadly, in the last few years, this type of priest has come to the forefront again,
using the blessings of their priesthood
not to serve but to master faithful Catholics.
They lay new burdens on people’s shoulders
which they themselves refuse to carry,
telling us we must accept the new things they teach,
even if we find it confusing or heretical,
while they themselves are so unaccepting of old things
that priests like St. Matthew, and even St. John Paul II, taught.
[In effect, they preach, what St. Paul called “a human word,”
and reject “the word of God.”]
So many priests—including bishops and cardinals—have abused their blessings.
And so, their blessing has become a curse.
Because of the sex abuse scandal, the Catholic priesthood itself
is demeaned and even the best of priests held suspect.
And because of the teaching abuse of bad priests,
the teaching of all priests is ridiculed as being “personal opinion,”
even when they are merely directly quoting from Holy Scripture itself.
In today’s Gospel Jesus derides the Pharisees for taking pride
in being called “Rabbi”—or “teacher”—or “Father,”
reminding us that we have one Teacher, one Father–God.
But Jesus isn’t saying you can never call people “teacher” or “father”
—what else would you call that person who teaches you in school
or that man married to your mother?
And it’s right to call priests “teacher” and “father,”
and for priests to love to hear that,
as long you and they never forget that all authority comes from God alone,
and any priest who uses the authority given him from God
in a way contrary to God’s fatherly teaching is not a true teacher or father
—but a hypocritical Pharisee.
Now, no priest is exempt from abusing his position, his blessings as a priest.
No priest is perfect.
But even while the smallest abuse is wrong,
these grave abuses are contemptable and condemnable.
So this is the challenge to priests today:
to hold tight to the covenant God made with our fathers,
to humbly teach what has been handed down to us,
to lead our flocks with a servant’s heart,
and to practice what we preach.
It is a great thing to be a priest.
What a blessing to have all these gifts and graces.
And what an abomination and curse to abuse this blessing,
especially by not teaching what has been handed on to us.
We don’t need priests like that.
But we do need good and faithful priests.
We need this of the men already ordained
—so pray for your priests,
and encourage them to be faithful to the covenant of our fathers.
But we also need this of the men who will be ordained
—and we need men to come forward to accept this blessing,
of the vocation to the holy priesthood.
The priestly life is hard sometimes, but it’s not much harder than the life of any father.
We have to worry about keeping the house warm and the lights on,
and paying the bills and saving for the future.
Sometimes we have to get up in the middle of the night to take care of our children.
And sometimes we have to tell them hard things or tell them “no”
even that makes them angry with us, or say things like “I hate you.”
But there also so many blessings to be a priest.
To be loved and respected by so many,
because they see us as their fathers,
and believe WE sit in the seat of Moses.
To be custodians of all the treasures of God’s revelation,
and to share it with his children, our children,
to lead them to happiness and heaven.
To be so close to Christ as we stand in persona Christi,
especially in the confessional, and most sublimely at the altar.
So, with all these blessings, why don’t we have more vocations to the priesthood.
To a large part, I’m afraid, it’s because
the abuse of the blessings of the priesthood
has become a curse on priestly vocations.
Young men have seen the example of too many bad priests
who were not faithful to the covenant of our fathers.
Who would want to give up their whole life for that?
I know I didn’t, when I was younger, and saw the example of those bad priests.
Until much later,
when I realized that there were a lot of great priests I knew about,
especially Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Maybe I could be different, maybe I could be a good priest.
May God forgive me for my failures.
So we need more good priests.
Priests who will be strong and brave in the face of persecution and insult,
who will be fathers who bear the sword of truth,
and serve their children and their wife
—Holy Mother Church—
by laying down their lives to protect them
from all who would harm or lie to them.
Priests that who will not make the blessings of the priesthood
serve their selfishness,
but who will be faithful to the covenant of our fathers, in Christ.
So to all unmarried men and boys, I say:
have you ever thought or prayed about being this kind of priest?
And you should talk to your parents, and maybe to a good priest you know.
And pray for the courage and love to do God’s will.
Because we need you
—if God is calling you, and you want to be a good and faithful priest.
And if you’re a mom or dad, or a brother or sister,
who wants their son or brother
to have all the blessings God has in mind for him,
have you considered if those might include the blessing of priesthood?
—and have you encouraged and prayed for him in that?
And all the rest of you, you also need to pray for these men and boys,
and to encourage them.
Because we all need good priests.
“And now, O priests, this commandment is for you:
If you do not listen… of your blessing I will make a curse.”
As we enter more deeply into this holy Mass,
let us all [turn toward the Lord together and]
pray for all the priests of the Church,
and all those men and boys who are being called to join them.
That, by the grace of Christ, especially poured out in the Eucharist,
they may answer and always be truly worthy of the blessings of
their holy calling.
May they be courageous leaders and humble servants.
And may they always be faithful to the covenant of our fathers.