Sunday, July 7, 2019



He summoned them. He sent them out.
He gave them authority. He instructed
   them to take nothing for the journey.
  Mark 6

When I read the lines “when I am weak, then I am strong” from Saint Paul and the lines from this week’s gospel, “take nothing for your journey,” I immediately thought of one of my heroes, a young 13 year old poet by the name of Mattie J. T. Stepanek who died in 2004.  He died about the age I was when I left for the seminary. He had been writing poetry since the age of five. I own three of his seven poetry books. 

He died in 2004 due to respiratory and other health complications caused by his rare form of muscular dystrophy.  His mother also has it and three of his siblings had already died of this disease. Most of his life he was in fragile condition and required platelet transfusions every few days. A precocious child, he started writing poems when he was five years old and has won many national literary prizes. To his credit, he already had seven best- selling books when he died. 

He lived in a wheelchair loaded with medical equipment and needed oxygen through a ventilator in his throat, all the time, because his “automatic” systems like breathing, heart rate, body temperature, oxygenation and digestion didn’t work well on their own.

Through his poetry, he expressed wisdom in a way that touched many hearts. With his unabashed enthusiasm for life, Mattie charmed everyone who crossed his path and inspired many people, young and old, to overcome the obstacles they encountered and strive for their goals with dignity and humanity. His three wishes in life all came true. He wanted to publish a book of poetry, meet his hero President Jimmy Carter and appear on "Oprah." When he met President Carter, he did not talk about his own health problems, but about problems in Bosnia and Africa and his desire to be a peacemaker in the world. He was on Oprah's TV Show and President Jimmy Carter gave the eulogy at his funeral. In spite of the fact that he was hooked up to all that equipment, he still saw miracles every day in his life.

In Scripture, Paul reveals himself as such a person, a person who remained hopeful and courageous in face of physical pain, personal setbacks and sell-outs by those closest to him. He even brags that “when I am weak, then I am strong.” Weariness, physical pain, opposition, slander, failure and even martyrdom could not diminish his hope in the power of God to turn disasters into opportunities for God to do wonderful things. Paul never gave up on God’s ability to pull a miracle out of the ashes, no matter what he faced.

In this week’s gospel, Jesus sends his first apostles out to preach the gospel and instructs them to “take nothing for the journey.”  There is no need to think of these words in a literal sense. If we did, we would all own nothing but one set of clothes, one pair of shoes and a walking stick. The spirit of what he says, however, is important. What Jesus is really saying, I believe, is that when it comes to doing ministry, nothing external matters compared to the zeal in our hearts. “Nemo dat, quod non habet.” “You can’t give what you do not have.”  Gimmicks, slick advertising and complicated structures merely slow you down, turn people off and end up becoming a substitute for real faith. It is when we are weak, it is when we depend completely on Jesus, it is when we walk by faith and not by sight, that we are strong.

Mattie Stepanek and Saint Paul give me hope and remind me of that great truth, “when I am weak, then I am strong.” This last few years have been a kind of hell for some of us priests. I, for one, have sometimes fought to keep depression at bay. At the beginning, I wanted to run away. At times, I have been angry, scared and low on hope. My 33rd year of priesthood was the most painful of all.  Throughout that dark experience, I kept coming back to the truth preached by St. Paul and exemplified by the courageous life of young Mattie Stepanek: “when I am weak, then I am strong.”

Retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco reminded me again of this great truth in an article he wrote before he died for AMERICA magazine - the same magazine that published my 2002 article entitled "Collateral Damage: How One Priest Feels These Days."   I had his words on the wall next to my computer for years. He made the point that we priests might be at our best when we are down, not when things are going well. I tend to believe him. He wrote:

I believe, in fact that this is the best time in history to be a priest, because it is a time when there can be only one reason to be priest or remaining a priest – that is, to “be with” Christ. It is not for perks or applause or respect or position or money or any other gain or advantage. Those things either no longer exist or are swiftly passing. The priest of today is forced to choose whether he wants to give himself to the real Christ, who embraced poverty, rejection and misrepresentation or whether he wants an earthly messiah for whom success follows on success.

Am I concerned? Yes! Am I discouraged? Yes!  Will I give up? Hell, no! I will not give up - at least I don't plan on it! I know in my gut that this “stripping down,” this loss of "easy prestige," will make us focus more on the essentials. With very little to take on the journey, we will have to rely more and more on Christ as we do our ministry. Yes, I believe that “when we are weak, we are strong.”     

Trials purify motives.  It is only when we lose everything that we find out that God is truly in charge and all is in his hands. How one handles things that must be handled is more important than what must be handled. It is easy to believe when one sees clearly. It is easy to be hopeful when everything is going our way. It is easy to keep going when successes follow on each other. Who needs God when you have the world by the tail? Who needs God when you think you think you are in control? 

My friends, the idea of “power in weakness” makes no sense to those who buy wholeheartedly into today’s values of “being number one” and “winning at all cost.” However, history has proven that when the church is fat and lazy and comfortable, it dies, but when the church it is in trouble, when it is powerless and when it is lean, it is most powerful. It is in times like these that martyrs are born! Look at the church in Europe! It is almost dead! Look at the church in Africa! It is alive and growing!  Maybe the best days of the church lie ahead of us, rather than behind us, in spite of the trials we are enduring and the afflictions we have brought on ourselves. 

As we used to say in the country when I was growing up, maybe we had just become "too big for our britches." Maybe were had become "too high fallutin'" and needed to be "brought down a peg or two!" Maybe the humiliation of the last few years will actually be good for us in the long run. Maybe it will make us humble, like we were in the earliest days of the church.  I, for one, am trying to believe so - and acting as if I believe so! 

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