There are certain words we would rather not hear.
Few of us want to hear the boss say:
“You’re fired” or “the company is bankrupt.”
No one likes to hear the government say:
“taxes are going up” or “the economy is in a tailspin.”
When it comes to marriage and family, no one likes to hear:
“I want a divorce” or “I’ve had an affair” or
“Your loved one has been taken to the hospital.”
And there are certain topics we would rather not hear addressed from the pulpit:
birth control, abortion,
criticism of the government,
the role of women in the Church,
sexual abuse by clergy.
When it comes to the bible,
some readings are best kept far from earshot:
“wives be submissive to your husbands”;
“it is more difficult for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom
than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye”;
“everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment;
and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ to another will be liable to the hell of fire.”
And we certainly don’t want our teenagers exposed
to that overly passionate statement found in the Old Testament
expressing love and sensuality: The Song of Songs.
By hearing such things,
issues and realities we would rather not think about
are forced to the surface of our conscience.
This, in turn, makes us uncomfortable, feel unsettled, disturbed,
maybe even angry.
Life seems to be much easier, less stressful, when lived in ignorance,
when controversial topics are left to silence.
There is a solution,
at least regarding unpleasant topics from the pulpit.
In a number of non-Catholic Christian Churches
ministers can be fired by their congregations.
If the pastor irritates enough people,
too often says something they don’t want to hear,
the members get together
and vote whether the pastor goes or whether the pastor stays.
Because of this system,
certain scripture passages are never heard in their public worship.
Today’s reading from Paul is a case in point.
Paul states his position: “It is better to be single than to be married.”
The Catholic church grounds its practice of celibate priesthood in these words.
Required priestly celibacy
was one of the issues causing the Protestant Reformation.
When it comes to Sunday worship
many non-Catholic Christian ministers select more agreeable verses.
Why risk the possibility of upsetting the apple cart.
This letter from Paul brings to the surface a conclusion
held by many Catholics: “priesthood is better than married life.
To be a priest is far more acceptable to God,
far more pleasing to God than being married.”
In other words, because I’m a priest, I have chosen the best.
All you poor souls who couldn’t manage the rigors of celibacy
are going to be assigned to the back seat in God’s kingdom.
Like Paul, I tell you these things…” for your own good”.
The possibility of voting sounds pretty good about now.
I would even vote myself out of a job for making such statements.
I too take offense at this interpretation of Paul’s words.
They surely don’t pan out on my end.
Freedom from the marital duties of spouse and children and livelihood
have not freed me from worries or distractions.
I have the gray hair to prove it.
Celibacy and virginity guarantee single-minded devotion to the Lord
as much as marriage guarantees spousal and family harmony.
The truth is: our vocation in life does not determine our level of holiness.
Our vocation does define the context of our lives …..our responsibilities and obligations,
but it does not determine where we spiritually stand in God’s eyes.
Being a priest does not automatically give me more access to God
than those of you who are married or are single.
There are people in this church closer to God than I will ever be.
It is true,
since I have chosen a life of celibacy,
I can devote my time more completely to the service of God’s people.
Sometimes, there is time for prayer and meditation and study.
Such opportunities are more limited
for those engaged in the affairs of the world.
But the key words spoken by Paul are “devotion to the Lord”.
If this is not present,
all the free, worriless time in the world amounts to nothing.
Regardless of our chosen or even accidental state in life,
without devotion to God, without a diligent attachment to God,
little love is generated.
Oh, we may go through the motions,
put on a good show for others to see.
However, when love is absent,
all the freedom we could ever have
will fail to provide for our deepest human needs.
Our lives need to be rooted in God and devoted to God.
It’s essential, whether we’re single or married.
We need to break out of stale, erroneous convictions.
It is not true that the height of holiness is to be found in a religious life:
in folded hands, in silence and solitude.
It is not true that the ideal Christian state in life is that of a priest or a vowed religious.
A single person devoted to God,
whether lay, religious or priest,
can experience the grace of God
in ways married people cannot.
Just the same,
a married couple, devoted to God,
with the tasks of parenting, family, worldly professions,
experience the grace of God in ways I never will.
One vocation is not better than the other.
They are different but equally important.
On the surface these comparisons are easy to hear:
we’re all equal in the eyes of God.
On a deeper level,
it may be easier to hold on to the old system,
where priesthood and religious life are considered to be the ideal,
the higher rung on the ladder of life everyone should strive for.
This conclusion provides a convenient rationalization:
“Since I’m not a priest, not a religious,
when it comes to devotion to God,
I’m not expected to try as hard.
After all, priests are supposed to pray constantly;
civilians can get by with much less.
Religious are supposed to be holy,
lay people aren’t.
Men and women who are given authority in the church
are supposed to be of service, reach out to others with compassion.
Those of us in the pews are the recipients of such dedication.
Priests are supposed to acknowledge the presence of God,
and be about the work of Jesus Christ seven days a week.
The laity need only be concerned about these things on Sundays.
St Paul, I believe, would scoff at such an interpretation of his words.
We are all called to, and I would go so far as to say,
we are all required to foster a
personal devotion to God.
We are all meant to be agents of God,
instruments of peace,
providing Christian example through our words and deeds.
We are all commissioned to go into the world,
contribute more to its conversion than to its demise;
to be concerned for the less fortunate,
to promote justice,
to support the common good over and above
individualism and selfish interests.
We are all on a journey, drawn ever forward by the same Spirit,
striving to reach the same destination: eternal happiness in God.
These are words we all need to hear.
I am only telling you what God has commanded me to tell you.
With regards to your current state in life,
a spiritual upgrade is now available.
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time
There are certain words we would rather not hear.