In the 1960s and 1970s the Marine Corps used a slogan to attract new recruits: “We don’t promise you a rose garden.” The Corps promised only pain, extreme challenges, and sacrifice. The messaging attracted a certain kind of recruit: One who was only interested in earning the title of Marine. I suspect some of you remember this, and I know some served or currently serve as marines. Even if there was a rose garden, I suspect there were plenty of thorns!
Pain, extreme challenges, and sacrifice. Perhaps the Marines were looking to our Lord’s call to the Apostles. He didn’t promise them an easy life either!
The Gospel today is a conclusion of the Good Shepherd discourse. Our Lord tells us “No one can take them out of my hand”. This implies the Shepherd has a protective role over His sheep. This does not indicate a “once saved, always saved” idea. Rather it indicates a battle is going on. The wolf is trying to snatch sheep away from the shepherd and the sheepfold. Yet our Lord promises this great protection to His sheep. He continues to protect us through the Sacraments. How does this happen? When a man is ordained a priest, his soul is more deeply conformed to Christ and He is given certain powers-powers to consecrate the Eucharist, to anoint the sick, to forgive sins. A priest is called to be another Christ in the world, and we know the pain that is caused when a man lives this badly. Our Lord does warn about bad shepherds. Like Baptism, ordination leaves a mark on the soul that is never erased. So once a priest, always a priest, even if the priest is no longer allowed to act as a priest. How much our Lord desires to be with us that He uses WEAK instruments to be with us! We need priests for the Eucharist! We need priests to have our sins forgiven! We need the priest to prepare us to meet God at the end of our lives. The Sacraments protect us. They really do. I can’t tell you how many times people have commented after confession how they are so deeply relieved, how they feel like a new person. People really are freed from temptations. Or the times I have been asked to bless a home to dispel evil spirits and the peace that finally comes afterward. The demons recognize this real spiritual power that Jesus has given to the priest. Exorcists note that when a priest walks in a room during an exorcism the demons see Jesus. The hands of the priest are consecrated at His ordination. That is why the PRIEST elevates his hands in prayer. He is acting in the person of Christ interceding to the Father for the people. The Holy Spirit acts through the Sacrament of Holy Orders. At Mass the priest lays his hands over the gifts, calling down the fire of the Holy Spirit to transform the ordinary bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. He speaks the words of Jesus in the first person because it is really Jesus working through that priest in the Sacraments. This is MY body. This is MY Blood. I absolve you…the bad shepherds do not lessen the beauty of the vocation. Our Lord has very stern warnings for shepherds who fleece and abuse their sheep. Very stern warnings. There are plenty of dumps full of garbage outside, but that doesn’t mean nature is ugly. There are plenty of broken homes, but that doesn’t mean the family is bad.
Our Lord called the twelve apostles, a rag tag crew, to be His shepherds over the sheep, gathered together around Peter who would be our Lord’s Prime Minister. Our Lord sent them out to do battle for souls, to fight on the front lines against a pagan world. A world that was living in utter darkness, a world caught up by violence, broken families, false worship. He told them things like the way is narrow, pick up your cross and follow me, to live you must die. We could hear Him also saying something like “I don’t promise a rose garden!”. These men heard this call to pick up spiritual arms and do battle. To battle they went—the Gospel spread through the whole world and great miracles have filled the earth! The greatest miracle is that Jesus works through a sinful man ordained as His priest to change bread and wine into the BODY and BlOOD of JESUS CHRIST-God!
Our Lord continues to call men to this battle. We need good shepherds to lead us into battle, to enter the front lines. The world is like pagan Rome and we need men who are willing to lay down their lives and respond to this call from Christ to be alter christi—other Christs—in the world. The ways of the world involve such things as hatred of self, hatred of the weak, children are killed, elderly and the sick and disabled are killed. There is so much confusion about the body. We need men to sanctify, to offer sacrifice, to lead the sheep to heaven. To be a priest is to be totally counter cultural. To bring God’s goodness to a world intent on the bad. There is a real battle and the priests are the first to be attacked by the devil because if the shepherd falls, the sheep scatter. It’s easy to complain about the state of the Church, but the truth is the Church needs men who PRAY and who are willing to lay down their lives for Christ to be His priests. So this is a call to young men out there—seriously consider this. Our Lord does not call our neighbor. Our Lord is calling you. This is also a great opportunity for your priest to reflect on his life and allow the Lord to convert him.
Yes, you have some great plans for your future, but God has better plans. Plans lasting all of eternity. Plans that will take you to experience the deepest joys and intimacy in prayer to the deepest sorrow and simply being Jesus to those who suffer deeply. To bring souls to God. To share in Christ’s victory. The question is: are you man enough? Our Lord doesn’t call perfect men, but men who love God and are willing to give Him their lives. To be a priest is to enter into a brotherhood not just among priests on this earth but also all the priest saints in heaven! Parents, remember your children ultimately belong to God. Their happiness is found in doing God’s will. Think of all those promises you made at their Baptism and Marriage. Parents, do not plan your children’s futures for them! God has a plan. Your job is to help your children to hear God’s voice and to respond. Grandparents, encourage your Grandsons to consider the priesthood. The home must be a place where children learn to pray, to love, and to respond to God’s call.
To have a son as a priest is a great honor for parents. A priest has many spiritual children—all the souls he baptizes, all the penitents that come to him, all the people he anoints, all the people he feeds with the Holy Eucharist, all the marriages he blesses. If I have some share over the parish of St Benedict and responsibility over St Anne, I have many more children than any of you! So think of this next time you are tempted to discourage a vocation to the priesthood because you are worried about not having children. Without the priest, there is no Eucharist and no absolution. There is a beautiful tradition that I learned about as I was beginning seminary and I promised I would do it at my ordination. When a priest is ordained his hands are anointed with the sacred chrism, marking those hands as the hands of Christ. Then after this the priest wipes his hands on a linen cloth. In the old liturgy the priest’s hands were literally wrapped by the bishop with this cloth to show his obedience. After my hands were anointed I went to the sacristy. There I had a custom linen cloth waiting. It has my name embroidered on it, and I wiped off the excess chrism onto that cloth. After the priest’s Mass of Thanksgiving, he then gives this to his mother. My mother died several years ago and so I gave it to my stepmother. The tradition is that when she dies, she is buried with it, and when she goes to her judgment, she goes to the Blessed Mother and our Lord and says “I gave you my son who is your priest”. With what love must the Blessed Trinity look on the sacrifice of a mother. Priests do not fall from trees. They come from families. Yes, sacrifices are involved—the sacrifice of the man giving his whole life to Christ in this way and the mother sacrificing her son. Mother’s think of the graces for your family by having one of your sons offering the Holy Mass everyday and remembering you constantly at the altar! When Giuseppe Cardinal Sarto was elected to the Papacy in 1903, his mother came to kiss his papal ring. She then presented her hand to Pope Pius X: “now you kiss my ring, for without it, you would never have received your ring.” Perhaps reflecting on this incident, Pope Pius X noted that: “Every vocation to the priesthood comes from the heart of God, but it passes through the heart of a mother.”
It’s time for battle. There’s no rose garden on this side, but what awaits for those who are faithful, generous, courageous, and willing to fight the good fight is what we hear about in the book of Revelation: the victors wear white robes and wave palms of victory… “The one who sits on the throne will shelter them. They will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them. For the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”” (Rev. 7:13-15). Amen.
If you think the Lord is calling you to the priesthood, talk to your parish priest or your confessor. He will give you advice how to respond to the Lord’s call.