To Be Called “Father”

Homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity, Year C. Last Homily at St. Charles Catholic Church, Hartland.

Of the many things that a newly ordained priest must get used to, being called “Father,” is at the top of the list. At first, the title doesn’t quite seem to fit, like a shoe that hasn’t been broken in yet. The wear is a bit awkward and uncomfortable. But over time, you get used to it. You also realize over time that it’s not a title that you earned, or that you in any way deserve. It’s a claim to a relationship. Anyone can call you “Father.” And when they do, they are making a claim on you—a claim to a relationship. You, as a priest, exist to bring people to Jesus, and bring Jesus to people. You exist to do what God the Father does: to make Jesus present in the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. When people call you “Father,” they are saying to you, “Bring me to Jesus, and bring Jesus to me.”  

This is what I hear when you call me “Father.” And it’s been my supreme privilege to be your “Father” for the past three years. It’s been my supreme privilege to bring you to Jesus, and bring Jesus to you. Thank you for that privilege. Thank you for that opportunity to serve you. You are the ones who have taught me how to be a spiritual father, and for that I am extremely grateful. 

As I look back on these past three years, there is indeed so much to be grateful for. There are, of course, the many joyful moments: the baptisms and confirmations, the weddings and ordinations, the visits to classrooms and graduations. I am, of course, grateful for all of these. But I am especially grateful for the hard and challenging moments, the moments that stirred my heart with compassion and pierced my heart with grief. Many people are invited into the joyful moments of our lives; but sometimes only the priest, apart from God Himself, is invited into the darkest and most difficult moments of our lives.  

The priest, like Jesus, is invited to descend into hell: the hell of sin, despair, and death. And the priest descends into hell in order to proclaim and make present the power of the resurrected Christ. To the hell of sin, he brings forgiveness; to the hell of despair, he brings hope; to the hell of death, the promise of new life. To descend into these dark places, the priest, like Christ, must die to himself. He must be stripped of his desire to be served rather than to serve. And this stripping is often a painful process, for it means letting go of any claims to what he previously called his own. The priest is not his own; he is not for himself; he is for you. “This is my body which will be given up for you.” These are Christ’s words to His Apostles, but they are also the priest’s words to his parishioners. 

These past three years haven’t been easy, but I am very grateful for that. On the front of my ordination card there is a picture of Jesus lifting Peter up out of the water. It’s a depiction of that famous scene from the gospels: Jesus has invited Peter out of the boat, and he begins to walk towards Jesus on the water. The first few steps go well, but then he notices the wind and the waves and, taking his eyes off of Jesus, begins to sink. Peter cries out, “Lord save me,” and immediately Jesus stretches out His hand and saves him. On the back of my ordination card there are a number of quotes, and one of them is from my favorite poem, The Hound of Heaven. The poem is about a man who has run away from God and has tried to find happiness in everything but God. God runs after the man, like a hound chasing his quarry, and does not permit the man to find happiness in anything but Him. Rather, God strips the man of every possible source of happiness until he finally turns to God to find what he was looking for all along. Near the end of the poem, God explains to the man what He has been up to in stripping him of all of these potential sources of happiness. God says to the man, “All which I took from thee I did but take, / Not for thy harms, / But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms. / All which thy child’s mistake, / Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home: / Rise, clasp My hand, and come!” 

In many ways I have felt that the Lord has been stripping me of various things these past three years. And perhaps you have felt that way before—if not in recent years, then at least at some point in your life. Perhaps you will feel that way at some point in the future: that God Himself is stripping you of some potential source of happiness, or at least allowing you to be stripped. This is a severe mercy, but a mercy indeed. For the only true and lasting source of happiness is God alone; He alone is our only hope. St. Paul testifies to this in our second reading: “[W]e boast in hope of the glory of God.” But not only that, St. Paul says, “we even boast of our afflictions, knowing that affliction produces endurance, and endurance, proven character, and proven character, hope, and hope does not disappoint.” If we embrace our afflictions, and if we allow ourselves to be stripped by these afflictions of all our feeble attempts to find happiness apart from God, then our afflictions will produce hope. For hope comes alive in our hearts when, after fighting Him for so long, we finally raise the white flag and surrender to God and His plan for our lives. 

When we finally surrender to God, we discover, as Peter did, that the safest and most secure place to be is the place where it feels like we’re almost drowning. Because that is the place where Jesus is, and where He stretches out His strong, right hand and saves us. This is why I’m grateful, above all else, for the challenges of these past three years: for all the sin, despair, and death I’ve encountered. For it is precisely in these places that I’ve most profoundly encountered the mercy, hope, and new life that Christ came to bring. Sometimes the darkest places are the holiest places. 

This is at the heart of the great mystery we are celebrating this weekend, the mystery of the Trinity. The heart of that mystery is that God exists as a communion of life and love and that we are invited to participate in that communion of life and love both now and in eternity. It is in the context of parish life that we receive that invitation, especially through the Sacraments. But Jesus stretches out His hand to us, inviting us to participate in the Divine Life of the Trinity, not only in the joyful moments, but also, and especially, in the sad and difficult ones. It’s been my privilege to be the hand of Christ, stretching out to save, in all of these moments these past three years. Thank you for taking my hand, and allowing me to walk with you, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. Thank you for this great opportunity to bring you to Jesus, and bring Jesus to you. Thank you for the supreme privilege of being your “Father,” and know that I will remain so in the days and years ahead. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.