Sunday, October 30, 2011

Year A Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Readings: Mal. 1:14b-2:2b. 8-10; Ps. 131:1-3; 1 Thess. 2:7b-9.13; Matt. 23:1-12

For all of us who are baptized there is only one vocation: to follow Christ. Hence, we acknowledge that there are different ways of following Christ. Nonetheless, as Catholics, when we think of vocations we think almost exclusively in terms of ordained ministry and religious life. It is important for us to remember that marriage, like holy orders, is also a sacramental vocation, whereas being a professed member of a religious order, a nun or a non-ordained religious brother, is not accomplished by conferring a sacrament on the one who makes her/his life-long, vows. Being a professed member of a religious order, regardless of the charism or ministry of the order, is no less important to the Body of Christ than bishops, priests, and deacons, or married couples. Likewise, many Christians are called to live lives that do not require ordination, marriage, or publicly professing solemn vows. For those of you who are single, you still have a vocation to follow Jesus Christ and make Him present in the world, in your work, in your relationships, in all you do. Your vocation, which you heeded in baptism, had strengthened in confirmation, and is renewed in this Eucharist, is no less important than any other vocation given in and through the Church for the salvation of the world.

A vocation is a calling. It comes from the Latin verb vocare, which simply means “to call.” In a Christian context it means a function, or way of life, to which one is called by God. Our call, our vocation, arises from within the Church, flowing as it does from our baptism. At World Youth Day earlier this year Pope Benedict XVI told the young people gathered around him that “following Jesus in faith means walking at his side in the communion of the Church. We cannot follow Jesus on our own. Anyone who would be tempted to do so ‘on his own,’ or to approach the life of faith with that kind of individualism so prevalent today, will risk never truly encountering Jesus, or will end up following a counterfeit Jesus.” Stated simply, being religious and spiritual are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.

Even as Catholics, we believe in the priesthood of all believers. The baptized constitute God’s priestly people. Of course, as Catholics, we recognize that there is a subset of God’s priestly people who are called to what is best-described as “the ministerial priesthood.” The word ministry is very important in this regard. Ministry refers to those tasks performed as a service to others. Christian ministry, that is, service performed in the name of Christ, is humble, self-sacrificing service, which is why Jesus, in our Gospel today, says, “The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). One of the most important titles of the pope is, “Servant of the Servants of God.” Forgetting this simple and basic truth is often what leads to the kind of the troubles we have experienced in the Church over the past decade. Hence, it is the job of priests, in communion with their bishop, and with the assistance of deacons, to put themselves wholly at the service of God’s people, not to lord over them, exercise power, or seek to exert worldly influence.

Earlier this month we observed the forty-ninth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which was a life-giving watershed for the Church. Perhaps the most over-arching call of the council, one that we are still very much in the process of realizing, was the universal call to holiness. This universal call is the vocation of all Christians everywhere. In his address at the opening of Vatican II, Bl. John XXIII, whose wholly unexpected and transformative papacy formally began fifty-three years ago Friday, reminded the Church that our Lord commanded us “to seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Jesus, by telling us to seek the kingdom of God “first,” before anything else, is urging you to respond to your vocation by indicating “what the primary direction of all [y]our thoughts and energies must be.”

Bl. Pope John went on to say that we mustn’t forget what the Lord promises us, that if you put God’s kingdom first, then everything else “shall be given you besides” (Matt 6:33). This is done by adhering to what Jesus said in last week’s Gospel, first loving God “with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” and loving “your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37.39). It is our job, yours and mine, to see that this divine injunction has an “impact on the various spheres of human activity—in private, family and social life.”

In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, St. Paul wrote about exactly the kind of ministry Jesus calls us to engage in when he wrote about his ministry among them: “You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery. Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God” (1 Thess. 2:9). His humble service is what gives the apostle creditability and authority. At the beginning of the passage he seeks to show that the toil and drudgery were endured out of love and without complaint: “We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us” (1 Thess. 2:8).

Archbishop George Niederauer, as happy a person as I have ever met

Today there are those among us who are still in the process of deciding the direction of their lives. So, I urge the young people here to make this a matter of discernment, that is, to listen to the Holy Spirit, making what you decide to do a matter of prayer, a matter of discussion with your parents, with your teachers, with your peers, and, yes, even our priests. Too often becoming a priest and/or a member of a religious order is dismissed out-of-hand, by young people and parents alike. According to many diocesan vocations directors, one of the biggest barriers to young people choosing (God never forces us into anything) priesthood and/or religious life is Catholic parents, who often have negative views of a Church vocation, and actively discourage young people from pursuing such a call, feeling that priesthood and religious life are less joyful, and fulfilling than other modes of life.

A friend of mine, who is a priest, sent me an email this week drawing my attention to a symposium that took place the first week of this month in Washington, D.C. The title of the symposium was, “Why Are Priests Happy?” I was very glad to read about a presentation given by Msgr. Stephen Rosetti, a theologian and psychologist, which confirmed my own personal experience, namely that U.S. Catholic priests “are demonstrably among the happiest, most job-fulfilled and satisfied men in the country.” The key reasons for this, according to Msgr. Rossetti, are their prayer life and the close relations they have established with God, fellow priests and laity in their parishes. We should be encouraged, not only that our priests are happy and fulfilled, but the reasons given for their happiness and fulfillment. Just we should not let popular culture shape the morals and values of our young people we should not let the popular media shape and form their view and understanding of the Church.

Bishop Wester has called us all to greater stewardship, which is but a reminder of our baptismal call to follow Christ in a concrete way by fulfilling our obligation to help provide for the needs of the Church, or, more accurately, to be Church, which calls each of us to freely and charitably give of our resources and ourselves. What Jesus is calling us to these past few weeks is to find practical and concrete ways to give ourselves in humble service to others for His sake and the sake of God’s kingdom. As Pope Benedict recently said, “What we believe is important, but even more important is the One in whom we believe,” the One who calls us to devote ourselves wholly to realizing God’s kingdom in practice, not only in theory.


  1. Deacon Dodge, you say: "Being a professed member of a religious order, regardless of the charism or ministry of the order, is no less important to the Body of Christ than bishops, priests, and deacons, or married couples".

    Be careful - this borders on heresy. The Council of Trent, Session XXIV, Canon X, states: "If any one saith, that the marriage state is to be placed above the state of virginity, or of celibacy, and that it is not better and more blessed to remain in virginity, or in celibacy, than to be united in matrimony; let him be anathema".

    You also say, "one of the biggest barriers to young people choosing ... priesthood and/or religious life is Catholic parents, who often have negative views of a Church vocation, and actively discourage young people from pursuing such a call, feeling that priesthood and religious life are less joyful, and fulfilling than other modes of life".

    I would also say the widespread dissent from the "dogma" of the superiority of celibacy over marriage has not a little to do with discouraging young people from a religious vocation. If we believe marriage is just as good as celibacy, we are going to actually consider marriage "better" because of how driven we are as humans by the "sexual urge".

    As Gregory of Nyssa said in the first chapter of "On Virginity", "But as the common instincts of man can plead sufficiently on behalf of marriage, it is superfluous to formally compose an exhortation to it as we do to virginity" (paragraph 8).

  2. Mr. St. Onge:

    I appreciate your comments and the civility with which you expressed your concerns. For the sake of brevity, I will take the liberty of addressing your points quite directly, but I hope not rudely nor in a spirit of contention borne of defensiveness. What I preached is not heresy. Something is either heretical or it is not heretical. Being familiar with the Church’s teaching on these matters (they were the subject of master’s thesis), I know where the border is, which is why I did not cross it by explicitly saying or even implying that marriage is a holier state than celibacy. In fact, I did even not address the absolute, that is, theological value of either celibacy or matrimony, but simply asserted that celibate people, both ordained and non-ordained, along with those among the baptized who are married have important roles to play in Christ’s Body. The immediate cause of the Fathers of the Council of Trent making this definition was the Protestant assertion that marriage is a superior state-of-life than celibacy for the sake of God’s kingdom, an understanding that certainly contradicts the understanding of the Church, as you note.

    On the other hand, anyone who would say that marriage is not a holy state of life to which many of the baptized are called, especially in light of it having “been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized” (Canon 1055 §1), is certainly guilty of denying a divine truth. The Body of Christ is not only composed of many parts, but requires different parts in order to perform its function of making Christ present in the world, as the apostle teaches (1 Cor. 12:12ff).

    As Chesterton observed, “A heresy is at best a half truth that is exaggerated at the expense of the rest of the truth.” By contrast, no less a light than Cardinal Newman insisted that orthodoxy is usually more about holding competing truths in tension instead of carrying these truths to their logical conclusion. I disagree with assertions, like the one made by St. Augustine, that marriage is merely a remedy for concupiscence. Instead, marriage, as is insisted in Ephesians 5:32, is an eschatological sign of the love Christ has for His Bride, the Church. Like celibacy, marriage and, indeed, all genuinely Christian modes of life, point to the Church’s eschatological fulfillment: “’Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready. She was allowed to wear a bright, clean linen garment.’ (The linen represents the righteous deeds of the holy ones)” (Rev 19:7).

    Shaped and formed as most Christians are today by the world and our hyper-sexualized media, the requirement of celibacy is probably the main reason Catholic parents hold a negative view of priestly and religious vocations. It would certainly be good to preach on the inestimable value of life-long virginity and celibacy when the readings lead in that direction. In addressing this issue in this homily I focused more on the existential value of leading a life wholly given to others in Christ’s service rather than on its transcendent aspects by seeking to demonstrate that men who respond to the call to be priests are, on the whole, happier and more fulfilled than others. However, if we take St. Gregory of Nyssa at his word, no such exhortation is required.

  3. Deacon Dodge,

    Thank you for your lengthy and thorough reply.

    You are correct in stating that you did not preach heresy. However, consider for a moment what your listeners hear when you state what you did. Most people in the Church have been taught the heresy that marriage and celibacy are "equal but different" callings. Hence, when you say, that marriage is "no less important" than celibacy, they hear, "marriage and celibacy are equal", and thus, the heresy is reinforced and perpetuated in their minds.

    My catechetics professor at Steubenville, and please let me know if you disagree, said that in teaching the deposit of faith, those doctrinal points which have been neglected in a certain time and place become by that very fact essential teachings to emphasize. Today, the dogma of the superiority of celibacy to marriage is so widespread that I have had to correct many young and well-formed priests and seminarians and even a professor with a doctorate in catechetics who taught full-time at an ex corde ecclesiae university on this point (the latter should give us cause for alarm and drives home the point that I am making, namely, that this heresy is very widespread and well-entrenched). This must be borne in mind any time you discuss marriage vis-a-vis celibacy. If you were to emphasize the distinction in your other homilies and elsewhere, then what you preached was fine. However, if you do not, then it is wrong and even dangerous for you to have delivered the above homily as it was, without making this distinction.

  4. Now, you stated it would be heresy to hold that "marriage is a 'holier' state than celibacy", and you said this is why Trent taught what it taught. But I disagree with your evaluation, because by this you seem to imply that both states are "equally holy". This is a (common) misreading of Trent. In fact, celibacy is a "holier" state than "marriage": after Trent condemned the Protestant position that "marriage is to be placed above the state of virginity" (which you spoke of here), it went on to condemn the position that celibacy is "equal" to marriage by stating, "if anyone saith ... it is 'not' better and more blessed to remain in virginity or in celibacy, let him be anathema".

    I am not stating that marriage is not holy. But I am stating that celibacy is a "holier" state. To directly quote Dr. Hahn, "Marriage is holy, celibacy is holier" (Genesis 1-22: The Covenant as a Family Affair [CD Recording], Disk #5, Minutes 51-75).

    I would also agree that many are called to marriage, but I also believe many, including many good, practicing Catholics (not just the nominal or lukewarm ones), are called to celibacy but nonetheless choose marriage anyway (especially in this "sex-saturated culture", as you rightly diagnosed - even the "good Catholics" are affected). This has been stated by countless bishops and priests and holy laypeople (including Dr. Hahn in the same recording I cited above). Almost without exception, Catholics who are married claim they chose marriage because they were called to marriage. This is a convenient assumption - it lets us believe we followed God's plan perfectly. But in reality, that is not the case for a number of men and women in the Church today. Parishes and Catholic schools are closing from a shortage of priests and religious - is this happening because God simply didn't call enough men to be priests and women to be religious? No. It happened because many men and women have ignored or failed to respond to his call.

    So Chesterton is right: "A heresy is at best a half truth that is exaggerated at the expense of the rest of the truth." You are correct that you did not teach heresy. But I would say that in your homily, you did teach "a half truth that is exaggerated at the expense of the rest of the truth", namely, the superiority of celibacy to marriage.

    Thus, as you say, "It would certainly be good to preach on the inestimable value of life-long virginity and celibacy when the readings lead in that direction". Can we expect, then, that the next time you preach on Matthew 19:1-12 or Luke 18:29 or 1 Corinthians 7, that you will teach unequivocally and give a strong exhortation for the great value of celibacy and the dogma of its superiority to the married state? Or have you done so in the past?

    (BTW, St. Gregory, I would submit, is speaking hyperbolically).

  5. Mr. St. Onge:

    Due to space restrictions, my final comment to this conversation will come in two parts.

    I consider long, hard, and prayerfully what my listeners hear when I preach, which is why I take such care in preparing my homilies. What people who listen to any given homily may take away is beyond knowing and certainly varies widely. However, knowing the people to whom I preach places me in a position to judge how best to approach certain matters with them, whereas you are in no such position, at least with regards to the parish I serve. It also bears noting that while homilies can and frequently do have catechetical features, preaching is not essentially catechesis, which is not to say that preaching shouldn’t be doctrinally sound, which mine is, even if not to your personal liking, which seems to be the cause your quibbling. So, I am not going to make an act of contrition for what I preached.
    In addition to not stating or implying that marriage is a holier state than virginity and celibacy for the sake of God’s kingdom, in replying to your revised charge, I did not state or imply that it is an equally holy state. In short, the issue did not come up, even indirectly In my homily I DID say that marriage is necessary for the Body of Christ, a vocation for the baptized, thus implying that it is a holy state-of-life. I stand by those assertions, which are not exaggerated half-truths as you ridiculously suggest. Again, keep in mind that the subject of my homily was not the theological value of matrimony over and against celibacy. Rather, my homily was an exhortation given follow Christ by faithfully living out the state-of-life which one is called, as well as encouraging young people to consider religious and priestly vocations, and urging parents not to be an obstacle given that Catholic parents are often a hindrance to those young people who consider responding to this call. Preaching on the last item is a delicate matter requiring pastoral judgment. Therefore, your criticism is like criticizing me for leaving the frosting off a steak.
    In my response to your initial comment I asserted strongly, certainly more strongly than in my homily, that Christian matrimony is a holy state-of-life, something that in my view and the view of many others who have studied the matter far longer and more deeply than I have, has been downplayed to the detriment of marriage throughout the Church’s history. At least as regards the Roman Catholic Church, I agree with something I heard Fr. Ray Carey say during a session of diaconate retreat a little over a year ago, namely that we didn’t even have a theology of marriage until after the Second Vatican Council. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, it is not much of one. Hence, I reject the idea that marriage is but a remedy for concupiscence. I view marriage as a positive vocation, an insight supported by my own experience.

  6. Because you merely restated, albeit more strongly, what you wrote in your first comment, you missed the most important point I made in my response, which was that any authentically Christian mode of life, including marriage, is eschatologically-oriented. What I did not note, but perhaps should have, is precisely what makes celibacy superior, namely that in light of Christ it is a “purer”(?) eschatological sign than is marriage. I find it ironic, fixated as you are on one, single point, which fixation obviously prevents you from grasping what I was trying express initially and even after a lengthy clarification, that you accuse me of exaggerating a half-truth. Let me ask you (rhetorically- meaning I'll leave you to ponder these for yourself), What half-truth am I exaggerating? That Christian matrimony when lived as God intends it to be lived (Gen 2:24; Eph. 5:32, Rev. 19:7) is a holy-state-of-life? That marriage is a positive vocation for the baptized? That it is a state-of-life that has very often been dealt with, especially in the Latin Church, on the basis of a dualistic anthropology? It has been observed that St. Augustine’s view of sexual relations, especially within marriage, represents a vestige of his earlier Manichaeism. I am not in a position to make an authoritative judgment on that, but I am inclined to agree with it.

    On the contrary, you seem to suggest that marriage is not an authentically Christian way of life, but only a negative vocation reserved for those who can’t hack the demands of celibacy, thus failing to recognize in Christian marriage any eschatological value.
    In my own research, one of the most balanced (i.e., an example of holding competing truths in tension) treatments of Christian marriage vis-à-vis celibacy is found in the unified code of canon law for the Eastern Churches in communion with Rome:

    Canon 373 - Clerical celibacy chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and suited to the priesthood is to be greatly esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole Church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor.

    Canon 374 - Clerics, celibate or married, are to excel in the virtue of chastity; it is for the particular law to establish suitable means for pursuing this end.

    It is useful that you bring a statement of St. Gregory of Nyssa into our discussion because it is not the canonical discipline of the Eastern Church, nor has it likely ever been, to require celibacy as a condition of ordination, not even for priests, but insisting on celibacy for bishops. Neither has it been the normative canonical practice of the Church, East and West, to permit a cleric to marry after ordination, even to remarry after being widowed (though a married permanent deacon can petition the Holy See for a dispensation, but only on three restricted grounds), nor to ordain men who have married more than once, even those who have remarried after being widowed.

    I will conclude not only this post, but this conversation, with this story, taken from John Garvey’s worthwhile article “Good gift, bad rule: the uses and abuses of celibacy,” which appeared in the 21 May 2010 issue of Commonweal magazine. It bears noting that Garvey is an Orthodox priest:

    “A monk told a young man who was wondering whether to marry or to be a monk, ‘If you have to ask that question, you shouldn't be a monk. You should be a monk if the alternative to being a monk would make you go crazy.’ That's the kind of celibate we need. The celibacy of Jesus and of John the Baptist, the patron of celibate monks, is a sign of the kingdom to come. It suffers now, because of a legalism that obscures what it might teach us.”

  7. Wonderful! And how right you are on the early Manichaeism that has tainted our view of sex even until today.