18th Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 4, 2019
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
A few weeks back you may have heard about the sad situation
in our neighboring diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia,
as an investigation determined that their former Bishop, Michael Bransfield,
was guilty of years of sexual misconduct,
massive financial mismanagement,
and lavish spending of church money.
What might Jesus have to say to Bransfield today,
and to all bishops and priests?
“Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich,
one’s life does not consist of possessions.”
Of course this passage from today’s gospel,
as well as the related texts in today’s 1st and 2nd readings,
applies to all of us,
but in a particular way it must apply to bishops and priests,
who are given a most precious gift in their ordination,
and in that gift are, as Jesus says today, “rich in what matters to God.”
Now, this doesn’t mean that the man who is a priest is himself necessarily holy,
as we see in too many cases, as with Bransfield, that is not the case.
But the gift of priesthood itself is holy, no matter what.
And while a priest’s sins do insult the gift of priesthood,
they do not take away from the gift itself:
a sinful priest still can offer a valid Mass, and forgive sins.
Even so, a priest should do everything he can to be worthy of this immense gift
and to worthily share it with the whole Church.
Of course, this is necessary for the good of his own soul
–remember the servant who buried the talent given to him,
of whom the Master said:
“cast this worthless servant into the outer darkness…”
Or as St. John Chrysostom put it so succinctly in the 4th century:
“hell is paved with the skulls of [bad] priests.”
But more important than that,
since the priesthood is meant not for the priest’s good,
but for the benefit of the whole Church,
the priest must strive for personal holiness for the good of the Church.
Think about it.
A priest is called to confect the Eucharist, to give the Body and Blood of Christ
to his people, and to forgive sins and administer all the sacraments.
But he’s also called to teach about the life of Christ the Eucharist brings to us.
And as Pope Paul VI once wrote:
“modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers…”
And so, the priest is called to be a witness to Christ by leading a holy life,
and so instruct and encourage others to be holy in their own lives.
And a holy priest is open to the fullness of the graces God has in store for him.
For example, by the power of the sacrament any priest, even a terrible man,
can forgive sins in confessional,
but holy priest will also be guided by the Lord
to know what to say to aid and convert the penitent.
He will be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit
in preaching, teaching, counseling and consoling His people.
And finally, a holy priest offers more efficacious prayer for his people.
St. James writes in Scripture:
“The prayer of a righteous man has great power in its effects.”
Imagine a truly holy priest, a saintly priest,
standing at the altar with the Body of Christ in his hands
—what greater human prayer could there be in the world?
One of the great examples of this sort of priest
is a saint whose feast we normally celebrate today, August 4,
although not this year not liturgically, since it’s Sunday, the Lord’s Day.
The priest who is the patron saint of parish priests, and of all priests,
known to many as the “Curé of Ars,” St. Jean-Baptiste Marie Vianney.
John Vianney was born in 1786, into a family of devout Catholic farmers
in small town near Lyon, France.
When he was only 4 years old the French Revolution and its Reign of Terror
began to wreak havoc on the Church in France,
executing, imprisoning or deporting tens of thousands of priests and religious.
During those years of persecution many faithful priests went underground,
and pious families gave them shelter, including the Vianney family.
It’s no wonder that young John, inspired by these holy and courageous priests,
fixed his sights as a child on following them into the priesthood,
so that when the persecution finally ebbed,
by God’s grace he was ordained a priest at the age of 29.
And 3 years later was named the pastor, or “curé,” of the tiny hamlet of Ars.
Ars had never recovered from the revolution
and Catholicism and morals were in shambles:
very few people went to Sunday Mass,
and in a town of only 230 souls there were 4 taverns.
But the new curé was determined to change this,
as he told a young boy on the road who helped him find his way:
“You have shown me the way to Ars,
I will show you the way to heaven.”
He began small, but with great zeal.
He spent his own salary to repair his church
and buy beautiful vestments and vessels
for more fitting worship of Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament.
He visited his parishioners, especially the sick.
He preached and taught catechism regularly.
He spent long hours in the church,
praying and waiting for his people to come to confession.
And he celebrated Holy Mass with profound reverence
—nothing was more important to him.
As he would say:
“All good works, taken together, do not equal the sacrifice of the Mass,
since they are human works, while the Holy Mass is the work of God”.
Eventually, witnessing his personal holy example and unrestrained love for Jesus,
people started to come, at first from Ars, and then from all over France.
It’s estimated that by 1855, his 27th year in Ars,
nearly 20,000 pilgrims would come to Ars annually
to see this simple priest.
Well, not so simple.
Reports soon spread of his miraculous healings
of the sick, the deaf, the blind and the lame.
Word spread of the regular vicious attacks he endured from the devil,
who would sometimes physically assault him at night.
But the most phenomenal reports came
with regard to his ability to read souls in confession:
as he would often remind penitents, in great detail,
of sins that they had neglected to confess.
All these, of course, were special graces from God,
but they came to St. John because he had made himself
completely open to them.
In short they came because he was a truly, deeply, HOLY priest:
But while those things tended to attract the crowds,
it was something much simpler that led them to actual conversion:
the example of holiness that exuded from St. John.
His love for his for Jesus and his people was manifest in every word and action,
His example of purest chastity led many a sinner to purity,
as they would say “he radiated chastity.”
His poverty of life and sacrifices showed them how to give all for God:
he gave literally everything he had to his parish or to the poor;
he would fast constantly,
eating only one daily meal of cold potato soup, if that;
he would sleep only 2 or 3 hours a night
so he would have time to keep his heavy schedule,
especially his 12 to 18 hour days in the confessional.
And his humility was a hallmark of his life:
once, early on, the neighboring priests signed a petition to his bishop
demanding the Cure of Ars be removed for his incompetence;
but the bishop rejected it when he saw that the last signature on the letter
was that of the humble John Vianney himself.
But all who knew him would say all this came from and led back to
his love and devotion to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.
His poverty of spirit showed in the torn cassock he wore constantly,
but covered during Mass with beautiful vestments, for the glory of God.
His love for his people was evident as he tenderly called them
to receive our Lord in Holy Communion:
“The soul hungers for God, and nothing but God can satiate it.”
His chastity shown like a beacon, as they said:
“He gazed upon the Host with immense love”
showing them his single-hearted desire for God alone.
His self sacrifice for his people,
shown through when ever he would offer Mass so devoutly:
“What a good thing it is” he would say
“for a priest each morning to offer himself to God in sacrifice!”.
And his humility was nowhere more evident
than in the presence of his Eucharistic Lord:
“I throw myself at the foot of the Tabernacle” he wrote
“like a dog at the foot of his Master.”
This is the example of holy priesthood that Holy Mother Church holds out
to all priests, including bishops.
But also to you, as She reminds you not to be discouraged by bad priests,
but to praise God for the gift of the priesthood, and for good priests.
And to demand that all priests and bishops at least strive to understand this.
And to pray for your priests that they be open
to the fullness of the graces of the priesthood.
For in spite of all the scandals, we must remember, the greatness of the gift.
As the Holy Curé of Ars saw it so clearly and wrote:
“O, how great is the priest! …”
“Only in heaven will he fully realize what he is”
“Were we to fully realize what a priest is on earth, we would die:
not of fright, but of love…”
These are no words of vanity or exaggerated self-importance,
but words from the humblest of men,
who was overwhelmed with awe for the sacrament and its responsibilities.
As St. John would say:
“The priest is not a priest for himself, he is a priest for you”.
It was a year ago yesterday that I first preached about the scandal
of now-former cardinal McCarrick.
And now we have the Bransfield scandal, and I know there are more to come.
All this can lead us to great discouragement, both priests and laity alike.
But then we remember that Jesus knew
there would always be weak and sinful bishops and priests
like Judas in the beginning,
and McCarrick and Bransfield and their friends today.
And so Jesus gave us bishops and priests like St. John the Apostle,
who stood faithfully at the Cross,
and his namesake, St. John Vianney, who stood faithfully in Ars.
And we remember that for all the truly evil bishops and priests,
we also know so many priests who sincerely strive
to imitate the truly holy priests, like those two Saint Johns.
So, we must not be discouraged, but re-invigorated.
As we now move more deeply into the mystery of this Holy Mass,
let us recognize the incredible gift that the priesthood is to us.
And recognize the abuses of that gift.
But also thank God for the gift,
and for the good priests who accept and embrace that gift for all its glory.
And pray for those priests, and all priests,
that they may always strive to imitate the many great and holy priests
that have come before them,
especially their patron, St. Jean-Marie Vianney.
And pray that all of us, laity, priests and bishops,
may “Take care to guard against all greed” and lust,
and strive to be “rich in what matters to God.”