23rd Sunday Ordinary Time C

Fathers in Christ

Catholics have a lovely tradition of calling priests “father”. For centuries this tender name has been applied to priests in religious orders. Our American Catholic custom of calling diocesan priests by the same term is scarcely a century old. But it is equally appropriate – never more so than when we are addressing priests who baptized us. In a very special way they are our spiritual parents. That is why St. Paul, in today’s second reading, calls the slave Onesimus who he had recently baptized “my child whom I have begotten.”

The Catholic priesthood has had a rough time in America over the past twenty years. Not a few “fathers” have left its service. The number of aspirants to the priesthood has plummeted. (This is true, at least, in the Western World; in Iron Curtain lands and in the Third World, the number of vocations is rising dramatically). Part of the fault is ours. Forgetful of what priests mean to us, we have too often neglected to praise the priesthood in our homes. Thus our sons never think of priesthood as a great and wonderful vocation to which they, too, are possibly called.

Recently a Connecticut woman spoke out, albeit anonymously, in praise of priests. Her letter appeared in the Hartford Catholic Transcript.

“Dear Fathers, brothers, but most of all, priests in Christ, we who have been blessed so much of our lives, to have been fed, consoled and cared for by so many of you, want to say over and over again how grateful we are to God and to you for your compassion, love, and all that you have done for us. We hope that you know how much we love and need you in these dark hours in our world and in our Church! We realize today that you are fewer in number, and we are sorry to have added our heavy burden to those you already bear. Please forgive us…Surely you must know how much your family (your church family) needs you to help to reap the harvest of so many lost souls in our world today. There are so many hungers that need to be filled. With His help, and yours, we know this can be done.”

Our priests needed that word of acknowledgement. Thanks, Mrs. Calabash, whoever you are!

-Father Robert F. McNamara

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Q283: In our Second Reading today (Phlm 1:9-17), Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to his legal owner, Philemon. Is this his way of saying that slavery is “okay” for Christians?

After the customary “greetings” and “farewells,” this tiny letter has only twelve verses to make its message heard. And it reflects Jesus’ own methods when it came to challenging the cultural “standards” of a “status society” (called an “honor-shame” society) such as the Mediterranean world of those days, when those standards impinged upon the dignity of humans.

The message is extremely potent and powerful, yet masterful in its subtle approach. Paul and Philemon live in a world where legal rights were dictated by a military power, such that one could not safely challenge the social structure and survive. So Paul is forced to appeal to Christian love: when it comes to the Christian community, we are to treat each other as blood brother and sister, not as a caste system of master and slave. That is a direct challenge to the existing cultural standards, because the slave owner is being asked “in the name of (Christian) love” to treat Onesimus as a beloved brother. Slavery as an institution is not even a direct issue; the human dignity of the slave Onesimus is the issue, as well as the response demanded by any and every Christian in such a situation.

That is a very high price for a slave owner to pay, in a society structured around honor and shame, where “control” was the top priority to preserve the status quo. Today is one of those rare Sundays when the Second Reading fits so perfectly, although unintentionally, with the Gospel (Lk 14:25-33). Jesus spells out very clearly the high price a committed Christian may be called to pay to follow him — even at the cost of breaking with family and social structures that might insert barriers between humans who are equal in God’s eyes.

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM!  The name “Onesimus” means “profitable” in Greek, and our Church teaches with utmost clarity that it is a sin against the dignity of persons to reduce them to their productive value or to a source of profit (CCC #2414). Paul was laying the foundation for social advocacy to help those powerless to help themselves. What have you done to improve social justice concerns in your city?

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Q440: The ending Gospel verse is very frightening for me (Luke 14:33). Why do I have to give up everything I own and become materially poor, to become a disciple?

Quick answer: you don’t! When most folks hear the phrase about renouncing their “possessions,” they usually picture their retirement savings, their new car, home, and other kinds of property. Visions of living like a homeless street person or vagrant bring on the goose bumps. Well, relax; that is not the kind of life Jesus is calling you to live.

Now, just suppose we do have some of these things – and you pick which one appeals to you: a Mercedes or a Ford; a Rolex or a Timex; a mansion or a log cabin; pricey designer clothes or a Wal-mart outfit on sale. Well, no matter what you pick, it still identifies your “status” in society. You are labeled Upper Class, Middle Class, or Lower Class, because almost everyone in a consumer society is “class conscious” and keeps their eye on the next rung up on the ladder.

Jesus is calling us to make a radical change away from that kind of thinking. No longer is “social status” an important guideline and goal. Instead, an uncompromising loyalty to Jesus – demonstrated today by an unconditional acceptance of his teachings, those proclaimed to us by our Catholic bishops – is the sole criterion to true discipleship. In this kind of kingdom envisioned by Jesus, we renounce the attitude that drives us to seek and cling to greater social status, and we refocus our attention on loving God and loving all his children. In this kind of kingdom, everyone has the same status – not the social kind, but the greatest status of all: the knowledge that I belong to God’s household, that I am one of His kingdom kids.

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Our bond with Jesus takes absolute precedence over all other bonds, familial or social (CCC #1618). Love of riches or their selfish use is absolutely incompatible with love for the poor (CCC #2445). Your attitude toward your possessions – all of which you hold in stewardship for God – shows where your heart is in relation to true discipleship. Take a journey through Romans 12:9-21 if you have doubts about how kingdom kids need to live (CCC #1971).

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My Ways Are Not Your Ways

Time and again Scripture reminds us that God’s ways and values are not the human values and ways that dominate in this world. Understanding God’s ways is not a human achievement. We have enough problems just trying to understand human nature and mother nature. It takes a gift from God to see and accept the fact that God’s ways turn our expectations on their heads. A slave owner does not take back a runaway and treat him like brother, but that is what Paul asks of Philemon to do in the name of Christ. Jesus tells us to hate our parents, spouse, and children. He doesn’t mean that literally, of course, but goes to show how high a price early Christians had to pay for being his disciples. They often had to cut their ties with their profession, their friends, and even their families in order to follow Christ. In the passages of the Gospel preceding today’s reading Jesus says that the Kingdom is open to all; in today’s terms it is all-inclusive but here Jesus stresses the demands, the conditions required of those who are called to enter the kingdom.

Lord, what price are we willing to pay to follow you? All love makes demands on the lover; this is part of love. They are inseparable. Is there a limit to what I will do or suffer for you? Please give me the wisdom to know that my true treasure & life are to be found through the cross.

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