Sunday, August 5, 2018



"I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger, 
and whoever believes in me will never thirst."
John 6

The little old lady arrived midway through the 10:00 Mass. Even though it was summer, she was attired in several layers of dresses, an apron and a coat. Her red wig was twisted to one side and secured by a tight-fitting knit cap. To top-off her outfit, she wore heavy boots---cast off combat boots. As she passed pew after pew, people moved books, purses, anything they could find, to make the pew appear to be full so that she would not sit beside them. Pew after pew, she kept looking, a shopping bag dangling from each arm, until she found an empty pew beside a new and unsuspecting visitor. Even with the weight of all she wore and carried, she managed to genuflect, cross herself and make a nest for herself among her bags.

During the Mass, she would make eccentric gestures and mumble comments either to herself or to those around her or at the priest, but when communion time came, she became very still and reverent. When the ushers came forward to escort people into the communion line, they didn’t bother with her. They simply passed her up. The old lady looked around, bewildered. There was a slight panic on her face as she realized that she had been bypassed and excluded.   Maybe used to it, she simply shrugged, started rooting through her shopping bags, and pulled out a loaf of bread. She untied it and took some slices out and offered them to her neighbors, who politely refused. She took a slice for herself and put the rest back into the bag and retied it. She held her bread on her palm, until she heard the priest say, “This is the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Happy are those who are called to his supper.” Then she carefully and tenderly ate her slice of bread and bowed her head in prayer.

I remembered this story from years ago because this bag lady has a lot to teach us, both about the gospel today and about the Eucharist we are celebrating. When she offered her bread to others, even when they refused theirs to her, she understood more than they, just what the Eucharist is all about. In the Eucharist we are taught that the family of humankind is one, that in God’s eyes there are no favorites, that we are all responsible to, and for, each other and that sharing is the solution to most of our needs.

We read, in the gospel of the week before last, that Jesus had invited his disciples to “go away for a while and rest” because “people were coming and going in such great numbers that they did not have time even to eat.” They had left by boat to find a deserted beach, but people found out where they were going, ran around the lake and met them on the other shore as they arrived.  In the gospel of last week, we read that as soon as their boat hit land, instead of getting away for a rest, they were once again faced with thousands of hungry, tired and needy people.  Instead of being angry, Jesus was moved with pity.

But how do you feed so many hungry people in the middle of nowhere? Simply put, as we learned last week, you share! One boy’s donation of five barley loaves and two fish, accepted and blessed by Jesus, triggered a miraculous chain reaction of sharing that resulted in everyone eating their fill with plenty left over.

John’s gospel wants us make the connection between these “bread stories” and what happened at the Last Supper when Jesus gave himself to his apostles as food. Jesus not only gave himself to them as bread to eat, but also told them to “do this in memory of me.”  In other words, like the bag lady and the bread for thousands, Jesus told them to share, to pass on what they have been given! “Do this in memory of me! Share me with others, because I have enough love to fill you and everybody else, with plenty left over.”

As a priest, I am very aware that this is precisely what I do, in persona Christi, at every Mass. I take your “five barley loaves and two fish,” represented by the bread, the wine and the gifts that you bring forward. I bless them with the words of Jesus at the Last Supper and distribute them back to you as the body and blood of Christ, given for your spiritual nourishment.

Priests have three duties: preach the word, lead communities of faith entrusted to him by the bishop and preside over the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. This role is so important for the church that St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “Without the bishop, priests and deacons, one cannot speak of the church.”

While I am very happy about the fact that lay persons have rightly taken over many ministries of the church---ministries that belonged to them all along, but ministries that were taken away from them over the years---I need to remind you that there is still a need for priests. Pope John Paul II once wrote that “the more lay ministry develops, the more need there is for well-formed holy priests.” It is a scandal that more and more parishes and faith communities are having to do without the Eucharist because of a shortage of priests. It hurts me deeply when I hear that even groups of elderly nuns have to scramble to find a priest on week-ends and weekday Masses!  

Having been a Vocation Director, a seminary staff member and now doing priest retreats in several countries, I have been forced to face our shortage of priests up close and personal.  There is nothing I can do about the laws of the church concerning the ordination of married men and women. If those changes were to come in my lifetime, I will be one of the first to embrace it, but it is not up to me. However, if you think women priests and married priests will solve our problems, you need to know one thing. Many Protestants and Jewish denominations, who do have women and married ministers, also have a clergy shortage. In fact. all the “helping professions” seem to have a shortage. Instead of getting all bogged down by something that is not in my power to change, I simply try to do what I can within the present teaching of the church and trust God to lead the church where it needs to go.  I am working as hard as I can to help priests work smarter, not just harder, so that the communities they serve can be fed on God’s Word from Scripture and the Body and Blood of Jesus in the Eucharist.

Why do I keep doing this priest thing? I do it because I am called to do it, because God’s people need to be fed and because I believe in what I do. I pray that God will send you others to replace old priests like me, so that we can open parishes, rather than close them; so that we can add Masses, rather than cancel them; so that the Catholic faith will be strengthened rather than weakened.   But in the meantime, I will be back here most Sundays to do what I can, keep going to the islands to help them, keep going to the Little Sisters of the Poor to help them, keep encouraging priests with my priest retreats in Canada, the United States and a few other countries, and whatever else I can do, as long as God allows me!

Now, let us go to that altar to “feed on” the Bread of Life! If we “feed on” that Bread, like the Israelites who were feed in the desert with “manna” from heaven, we will be able to cross whatever "deserts" we have to cross this coming week and the months ahead!


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