Sunday, September 23, 2018


If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be
the last of all and the servant of all.

As far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a priest, and as far back as I can remember, priesthood has often been an uphill struggle. I struggled to get to ordination and I have struggled to remain a priest, especially during the height of the sexual abuse scandal. In spite of it all, I choose it again to day, with gratitude. 

I got into priesthood because I wanted to help other people get more in touch with God, while getting more in touch with God myself. The primary duty of priests is to preach and I feel more like a priest when I preach from the pulpit and try to help people open up to God a little more and when I find myself opening up to God a little more in the process.

I never thought too much about what I would have done, if I had not become a priest, until I was pastor of the cathedral. The cathedral was my biggest and most visible challenge. I went from being a young, two-time country pastor to being a pastor to some of Louisville’s biggest movers and shakers and a downtown community leader.  Several times, during those years, I was told that I could have been a millionaire if I had gone into business.  Even though those words come to mind every once in a while, especially when I am discouraged, I still wouldn’t trade with anyone, no matter how rich they are! I agree with Albert Schweitzer when he said, “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.”  Of course, business people can serve and millionaires can serve, and I know many who do, but serving as a priest has always been my "thing."

I love this gospel story.  Like a bunch of teen-age boys, Jesus catches his disciples bragging about who was "number one," who was "the greatest." Can’t you just see them twitching in silence, sheepishly raking their sandals through the dust, eyes downcast, pulling at their robes, as they realize that Jesus had overheard them and faced them down with that piercing look of disappointment? 

We are told in today's gospel that Jesus “sits down” to deliver his lesson to them on discipleship. Rabbis, Jesus included, normally taught as they walked along the road. When a rabbi “sat down” to teach, it was a sign that something very serious and essential was about to be taught. (We Catholics have a vestige of that custom even today when the pope speaks “ex cathedra,” “from the chair.” When the pope speaks “ex cathedra,” “from the chair,” his teaching is binding on all in the Church. See that big chair over there? Only Archbishop Kurtz sits in that chair. When he speaks "ex cathedra," "from the chair," what he says is meant to be very serious.

Sitting down, Jesus delivers one of the essential teachings of our faith. “Listen, boys, let's talk about being “number one!” If you want to be number one in my book, if you want to be great, make others number one, build others up to greatness!  Don’t get sucked up into the popular wisdom of scratching your way to the top so that you can be served by others.  If you want to be my followers, if you want to be happy from the inside out, you must look for ways to help others be successful, to make other people shine, to bring out the best in others.  

A diocesan priest’s whole purpose is to be called from the laity and to live among the laity so as to serve the laity by focusing his ministry on the spiritually empowering the laity.  Ordained priesthood, then, is essentially about living a life of service to all those in the baptismal priesthood. My job is to serve you and make you great.  My priesthood make no sense without my connection to building you up and serving you.

The New Catechism of the Catholic Church says that five of our seven sacraments are geared toward our personal salvation: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, reconciliation and anointing of the sick.  The other two sacraments, holy orders and marriage, are geared toward the salvation of others.  Holy Order and Matrimony are sacraments of service to others. That means that people enter into Christian marriage, not for what they can get out of it, but because it offers a structure for serving one’s partner and one's children. Married people are supposed to be people who specialize in “love giving.” It is not 50-50, as some would say, it’s about giving 100% regardless of what you get back. Few ever measure up to that lofty ideal, but it is still the ideal. Priests are ordained and people marry to serve, and their service to their parishioners or partners and children is what will make them happy and holy.

Besides ordained ministry and marriage, there are many other ways to serve as well. Some serve as teachers, doctors, nurses, politicians and musicians for example, but no one serves like parents who raise children. Parenting calls for the selflessness of Mother Teresa, the patience of Job and the resources of a small country. For twenty to twenty-five years, parenting is about giving and serving without let-up, putting the needs of one’s children and spouse before one’s own needs.  Marriage partners and parents have my deepest admiration.

Fellow believers, we live in a world where shrill voices try to seduce us into the trap of  believing that happiness is to be found in scratching our way to the top so that we can be served by others.  We hear more and more people talking about “taking care of number one,” “my rights and my needs” and “every dog for himself.” Jesus offer a contrary vision, a road less traveled, a vision that says “greatness is about serving the needs of others.”  That does not mean that all of us need to run off and join Mother Teresa’s community. We are all called to serve, but we are called in a host of different ways. Often “service of others” is as simple as bringing an attitude of service to whatever we do, be it a student-focused teacher, a child-focused parent, an attentive spouse, a caring doctor, an honest business person, an ethical politician, a priest who is people-focused! As an old country song puts it, “Do what you do, do well!”

Service begins with noticing. Noticing leads to caring. Caring leads to service.  When we serve, we put others first. When we put others first we are acting “like Christ” who came to serve, rather than be served.  Only when we act “like Christ,” do we deserve the name “Christian.”  Remember the hymn we used to sing in the 60s? “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. They will now that we are Christians by our love.”


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