For the graduate studies of my seminary formation, I went to Mundelein seminary. In light of the readings for this weekend, two memories come to mind that I’d like to share.
Some background that may be helpful to know – by the time I had gotten to graduate studies, I had quite a chip on my shoulder about Catholic universities. I hadn’t had the greatest of college experiences and so my default status was one of skepticism – that these people leading my formation would probably be an obstacle rather than a help! Not the greatest of attitudes, to say the least, and it led me into a number of bad habits right off the bat: I gave myself license to skip out on a class here or there, avoid conferences, sleep in for morning prayer, and even skip daily Mass – none of which was optional!
Some time after this became a habit, after lunch (which, of course, I never skipped!), one of my classmates comes to my room, closes the door, sits down and says ‘we need to talk’. ….this is never a good sign.
I don’t recall how he phrased it exactly, but the essential message was ‘why are you here?’. He kindly but bluntly highlighted all of the habits I’ve just mentioned and let me know that it was clear that something was going on – and that I needed to face up to it.
I’d like to say that I responded with humility and grace, accepting the truth of his assessment, and thanking him for bringing it all to me as he did. I’d like to say that. The best I can say is that I didn’t react explosively, but rather sort of sullenly, holding back whatever reaction I had and hoping he would quit talking and leave – which he eventually did.
Of course, he was right – and the truth of that didn’t escape me, despite my brave face. Things didn’t change overnight, but I slowly started to address the things he brought up – especially with the help of my friends, one of which eventually was this very classmate.
Hearing the first reading today, where the Lord gives that exhortation to speak out to the wicked, I have to wonder what it must have been like for my classmate – who wasn’t (yet) my friend, but who gathered the courage to walk into a stranger’s room and have a hard conversation.
I think we’ve all had that impulse, that call, when we need to go to someone and speak that truth they don’t want to hear. And yet, the exhortation of the Lord is very clear: ‘I will give you what to say – and if I tell you that someone is going astray, and you don’t speak out, they’ll die for their sins – but I will hold you accountable. On the other hand, if you speak out and they still don’t change their ways, while they will die, you will be exonerated because you spoke the truth.’
This is Christian love – this is what we are called to do. But even now, as a priest no less, this call still twists my guts when I receive it. There is yet the hesitation in my heart, and I think, all of us.
We don’t get to just dismiss this as Old Testament rhetoric, as if that law is no longer applicable to followers of Jesus (a terrible attitude anyway). But also, as if to rebuke that temptation directly, Jesus speaks to this in the Gospel reading we hear today. If a brother sins against us, what are we to do – well, He says that first we go to him privately, charitably to raise the issue. And if that doesn’t work, our work isn’t done but rather we are to go back with two or three witnesses. If this yet fails, we bring the Church into the matter!
Only then do we get to stop trying to approach them in that way. But even in the way Jesus directs us from that point – ‘treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector’ – is not one of dismissal. Because to whom did Jesus give special attention to, if not Gentiles & tax collectors…among many other outcasts, sinners, and exiles. So too, our work is not yet done.
There’s a humility that is required in being one who goes to someone else and makes the claim that you see something wrong and that you have the truth of the matter. I think we rightfully tremble at assuming that position, because we naturally ask ‘who am I to do this?’. And the reverse is true as well. To have someone come to me and tell me ‘you’ve offended me, you’ve sinned, you’re on the wrong path’ – that’s not something I want to hear! …and yet, I need that too. We all need it.
The second memory that comes to mind in light of the readings is another memory from Mundelein seminary. It was the weekend I went there, well before the events of this encounter with my classmate. I was present to do my entrance interviews. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Mundelein seminary hosts the Liturgical Institute.
This was an initiative by Cardinal George to help train not just future priests but any interested layperson about the treasures of the liturgy. And every weekend the Liturgical Institute takes responsibility for the Masses offered at the seminary – the result of which is the highest of liturgies, with all the stops pulled out.
So I’m at this beautiful Mass, with incense, chant, beautifully sung hymns, and all sorts of glorious tradition on display that I’d never really encountered before. And it was awesome. But what really made an impression was at the calling of the Holy Spirit down upon the bread and wine, as the deacon knelt down. It struck me then – and strikes me every time at Mass – that not just him, but all of us are being called to humility, are practicing humility, at every celebration. The people are kneeling, the deacon kneels a few moments later, and the priest himself genuflects not once, not twice, but three times throughout the course of the Eucharistic prayer, all acknowledging the Word made flesh in our midst.
We are called to humility, right here at Mass. And it is meant to be a gift to us, a help to us. We reasonably ask how we can embrace humility, how we can accept the responsibility to humbly call others to humility, how can we humbly accept when other’s make that call of us? How do I do that well? And yet, here at Mass, we are being trained.
If that were not enough, we have the example of Christ Himself. Based on His own merits, Christ had no reason to embrace humility. He could have just shown up in glory and announced His divinity. But instead He slowly enters into our midst, shows up meekly as a child, comes as one of us. He demonstrates His glory, bit by bit in His life and then in dying a death like ours. It is not until His resurrection that His glory is made clear to us.
We hear Saint Paul today exhort us to love one another – that all of the law is encompassed in love. Not that rules don’t matter, but that if we move in love for each other, the rest will come naturally. Even in the hard things of correcting and being corrected, love is the guiding principle.
As we celebrate Mass, standing together in prayer, kneeling together in humility, coming forward for communion, let us ask the Lord for humility. And yes, this is a dangerous prayer – because He’ll give it to us! But it is a gift, a grace – and we can trust that this is so because Christ led the way.
The point is not that we should sit and beat our breast at how lowly we are; the Lord does not desire that we live in humiliation. He desires to show us the way to life, to resurrection, to glory. This is Christian love, this is the call we receive. And if we don’t know how to do it, let us ask for that gift! God will guide us, gently though firmly. Christ shows us the way, so that we might first receive His friendship and having been so led, that we might share that friendship – in both hard and joyful moments – with all.