Bearing my soul on Vianney Day – Matthew 13:54-58
There are no coincidences; God always has a plan and he chooses the moment and method that he wants to speak to us. The text of today is his voice speaking to me on a day that I am called to reflect on the life of our patron, St John Vianney; the Parton of the diocesan clergy
In so many ways, this text touches my soul. Over the past several years, the Lord has been using me to teach his word. It began first with the written blogs. I used to write with trepidation, afraid that I might make a mistake in my teaching; afraid of criticism. Then, Covid forced what was written to also be ‘vlogged.’ Now I had a face to the text that was written and every word I said was recorded for posterity. One slip, one mistaken line and the repercussions would follow.
I soon came to realise that it was not my words that flowed in every scripture reflection I wrote, but HIS. There were times my fingers few over the keypad; they could not match the pace of the thoughts that HE poured into my head. Words, sentences, ideas and clever lines were given to me and given to one who could barely pass his seventh grade math and who had to alter his report card so as to not get a beating at home for failing yet again. (Well I did get the beating all the same and doubly so for being dishonest)
I am not a clever man; I just had to work harder than every one else. I grew up in the shadow of a very intelligent brother. To make matters worse I was a shy kid who got bullied so often. I am not the extrovert the world thinks I am, I just had to learn to stand up for myself before I was taught to stand up for Christ. I know how weak I am, how frail I am and how short I fall in my Lord’s eyes. Yet he chose me for reasons I cannot fathom. His words ring in my ears, “you did not choose me, I chose you and I appointed you to go and bear fruit.”
The Gospel text of today, on this the feast of my patron John Vianney, gives me consolation. The Lord chose a broken vessel to water his garden. A broken vessel may not carry all the water to its intended source but being ‘cracked’ it drips along the way giving life to the arid ground below which was never intended to be watered by man. But life springs where it was never intended to and that is the work of God who uses even a ‘cracked-pot’ like me to bring life to others.
But if Christ was rejected then why should I expect preferential treatment? Can a servant greater be than his master Christ the Lord? (John 13:15 -17) Christ was rejected by his very family and the members of his own hometown. They knew who Jesus was, so they asked “who does he think he is?” He was labelled, written off and sneered at, based on their limited knowledge of their reality of him. For them, he was the son of a carpenter, a boy from the village; they could not see God in their midst.
Rejection is part of priestly life. The irony is, that most of your congregation love you but never tell you this. If you are lucky they will tell you how much they will miss you, that on the day your transfer notice kicks in. Yet there are those who will hate you and make sure you know it. I have had my share of haters; not entirely because of my human limitations but more for the causes of truth that I feel compelled to represent.
As a seminarian, I don’t think my professors thought much of me. I was not one who seemed to walk with the trendy theology of the time. Justice was a hot topic in the seminary back in the 1990’s. An option to live in the slums was seen as ‘more worthy’ of seminary formation than one who chose to live in the hallowed walls for which formation was created. But God does not go with the trends of theology; his message and truth was meant to be eternal.
When the moment came for me to stand for the rights of the people in Bandra, the Lord gave me a disciples tongue. He replaced courage where fear ought to have been a normal response. Ironically, I was attacked by my own brother priests, whom I suspect, rather pleased the powerful than petition the cause of the poor. I bear no animosity against them and while I know that some may have “taken offence” others asked contemptuously, “where did this man get all this?”
“Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house.” Christ who experienced rejection reminds his clergy that while they will be loved by many they must also be rejected by those within their inner circle, for standing up for the truth of Christ.”
When presented by Napoleon with the Imperial Order of the Legion of Honour St John Vianney refused to accept it. He said “when I go before my Lord, will I show him these human trifles?” I must admit that as a young priest I thought a skull cap would fit well on my head. I hankered for honours and position. It took a friend who looked me in the eye and said, “you are becoming a career priest.” Thank you Dominique Cerejo for you honesty; thank you for saving my soul. I now know that the Lord did want a cap for me but it was not what I imagined. He wanted me to share in his crown of thorns for that fits well and though I have an inkling that this crown will soon be pierced deeper, I also know that he will stand by me in my trial.
My prayers today are for my brother priests who are in far flung mission stations, where bread is hard to get and fear of persecution looms large. We who are blessed to minister in cities, in the relative comfort, if not the luxury of our ivory towers, must step out and become the voice for our brother priests who labour in challenging situations or else we will look like beautiful ships resting in a harbour but then again, that is not what ships were made for. Christ calls us to speak for the voiceless, to care for the poor, defend the faith and oppose every false power that be; both within and without the Church and boy, do the ones within the Church abound!
This piece is not written with malice to any one though it may oddly seem so. It is not meant to set me on a pedestal over the rest. It is a reminder to ALL the members of the clergy that we share in his priesthood and if we are not rejected like Christ, then it has become painfully clear that we do not stand on his side but that of the world. Christianity by its very tenants stands against the ways of much of this world. The minute you oppose it, you will find yourself carrying a heavy cross as you are led away to be crucified.
Finally, I want to apologise to those who I have hurt deliberately and the many many more whom I have offended unknowingly. The brashness of my first years as a young priest hopefully have given way to a more mature approach to the people that God entrusts me with. For me, these two years of a sabbatical, is an opportunity to sit on the sidelines and to serve without post or position the Lord’s flock, where ever I may be.
Dedicated to the memory of Fr Stan Swamy, who thought not a Diocesan priest, was very much a priest after God’s own heart. May the Church recognise what many of the laity acknowledge; that we were privileged to live at a time when a saint lived in our midst.