Striving for the Greater Gifts!

FrustrationI have strong reason to believe that many of you suffer from frustration. You know why? Because the most feedback I ever got was for that homily on frustration in late November.

So what are you frustrated with? If there’s something in our life we could change, what would it be?

This is what Tom said: “I like my life. I enjoy my work, I have a rewarding family life, and both are important to me… It wasn’t always that way. A few years ago all I did was work. I was on the road incessantly, had gotten out of shape, and wasn’t even aware that my marriage was in trouble. My wife sat me down one day and told me she didn’t think our marriage was working, and that she felt like we were chasing different things. That was perhaps the scariest moment in my life” (Matthew Kelly, Off Balance, 71-72). Tom, like so many of us, was losing the most important things because he was too busy doing important things. We don’t have time for God, don’t sleep enough, don’t exercise regularly, neglect the key relationships in our lives, and we’re always behind on our to-do list, which keeps on getting longer and longer—this is frustrating and it happens to me too.

Jesus gives beautiful advice for us through the words of St. Paul, “Strive for the greater gifts” (1 Cor 12:31). The point of today’s homily is that even though there are many good things in life, there are even greater things! St. Paul gives the example of having many good things: speaking in the tongues of angels, having prophetic powers, having all knowledge, giving away all our goods; but if we don’t have the most important thing, love, then it’s all useless.

Tom said, “My life is very different now. The reason is that I have worked hard to figure out what really matters… My priority list is fairly simple: faith, marriage, children, health, and work. It took me a while to make the list, but since I made it I have carried a copy with me everywhere, and the list has become a guide and touchstone in times of decision… There have been times since I put this list together ten years ago that I have unnecessarily violated my priorities. Sometimes I did it unconsciously and at other times I did it consciously, deceiving myself… All this has served to teach me… don’t mortgage your higher priorities for your lower priorities” (72-73). Tom recognizes that there are greater gifts in life and that’s why he likes his life, enjoys work, and has a rewarding family life.

What greater gift are we neglecting in our life? We all have something.

Bible1St. Paul says the greatest gift is love. He’s talking about love of God and love of neighbour, two aspects of one reality. So he’s asking: what’s the point of doing so many good things, having a good job, making money, being good to friends, if we don’t love Jesus, if we don’t love our families? We love other people and things, but not the most important person. Jesus says, “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). This a perfect time to remind everyone that we’ll be having First Saturday Confessions this Saturday, Feb. 4, 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., except for Mass at 5 p.m. This is a greater gift!

I’d like to share with you a deep desire, a greater gift, that God has put into my heart and how I’m discerning the way in which He wants me to strive for it. Hopefully this will inspire you in some way to choose the greater gifts if you see someone else doing it, and hopefully you’ll have a better idea of what to expect from your priest.

The greater gift I’m striving for is to be a better priest and love you better (I’m not saying this to get on your good side). This question is constantly on my mind because I struggle with how to do it. At the time of writing this homily, here is a list of topics of e-mails, which are at 459 in my inbox: marriage preparation for a couple, launching the Alpha course, request for a house blessing, starting a Syrian refugee sponsorship, marriage preparation, baptism preparation, homily feedback, maintenance question, office management, hospitality initiative, learning names initiative, request from the Columbus residence, problem at the school (not my fault), parish centre project, editing Deacon Andrew’s homilies, First Mass of Deacon Lucio (I’m not going to answer that one), personnel policy manual, NFP follow-up, request for talk about sexuality, meeting for Project Advance, golf committee, meeting to talk about God and suffering, request to visit 2 people in the hospital, request for interview from the BC Catholic, etc.

Your life is exactly the same: taking care of a family, running a household, having a job, volunteering here at the parish—so many good things to be done. Here’s the thing: they’re all good things! But the reality is we cannot give them all the time they deserve, otherwise we’ll neglect the more important things. For me, that’s my spiritual life, sleep, exercise, health, relationship with family, Confessions, anointings, Sunday homily preparation, leadership of the parish, the training of Deacon Andrew, etc.

Coming out of my retreat in November, God reminded me to take Monday as my Sabbath: except for emergencies, I will not look at e-mails, return calls or be available. (Are there exceptions? Yes. But they are exceptions.) I will spend that day in prayer, rest, and relaxation. I hunger and long for time of deep contemplative prayer, and if I don’t have that quality time with Jesus, my homilies will dry up fast, hearts will not be converted, I will not be in step with the Father, and I’ll be relying on my own strength—that’s deadly for you.

coupleA wise Catholic man once told me that the center of a family is…? (I suppose there are many answers but his answer was insightful.) The relationship between husband and wife. They are a unity and the unity must remain strong so that the kids feel a sense of security. The legitimate health of mom and dad’s relationship must have a certain precedence over the time with the kids, because their love naturally overflows to the kids. This doesn’t mean letting your 3-year-old do the cooking or let the 8-year-old run the house with the 2 younger siblings. But it does mean that mom and dad have to pray together, go out on date nights.

From a spiritual perspective, if we’re faithful to God in prayer, we’ll be more present and love more authentically. The love of people who are prayerful is more “attentive, delicate… sensitive to other people’s sufferings, and capable of consoling and comforting” (Fr. Jacque Philippe, Time for God, 27). If, for example, I spend little time with the Father, what kind of love will I give you? Imperfect, human love, whose source is Fr. Justin. But if I take time away from you, and fill myself with Jesus, then when I do spend time with you, I will give you Jesus’s love. That’s more powerful. That’s why people like Bl. Mother Teresa could change people in 5 seconds, why she touched people’s hearts when she smiled at them. Because it was Jesus’ smile, not hers. St. John of the Cross says that people “would accomplish a greater good by one single work, and with much less effort, than they now accomplish by the thousand works on which they spend their lives” (28) if they spent more time in mental prayer.

A priest’s presence is always a blessing; Parents’ presence is always a blessing for the children. But where will it be the greatest blessing? For a parish, the priest’s focus must be on the sacraments, teaching and leading. Only one person can celebrate Mass, hear Confessions, anoint the sick. Here at St. Anthony’s, I can help 960 people all at once if I prepare the Sunday homilies well. When I arrived here a year and a half ago, I deliberately chose to sacrifice the quality of my daily Mass homilies in order to focus on my Sunday Mass homilies, which for me take 6 hours to prepare, and I aim to prepare them eight weeks in advance (so that there’s time to pray over it and so that I can discern what Jesus is really trying to say to us) and then I give them to the Leadership Team to review and make suggestions. So I cannot go to every ministry meeting (I would love to be there, but you do well without me), I have to put spiritual direction on hold for about 6 months while we build up the parish and I focus more on vision casting for the future.

Fr. James Mallon rightly says that as a parish grows the role of the priest will change (Divine Renovation, 263). The priest will focus more on only the things he can do and, by definition he will become less available, but(!) more effective and more life-giving. (And I’m going to get back to spiritual direction in the near future!). And then everyone else will step up. You must take care of each other, you must pray with each other, listen to each other, nourish yourselves and get educated so that you can teach and lead each other to God. You must run the ministries, start initiatives, and respond to needs.

Could you imagine how good life would be if we got that greater gift, the one we’re thinking about? Picture it.

The actual cards we collected today

The actual cards we collected today.

We’re going to do one thing to get the ball rolling: today, we’re going to write down on paper our deep desire, the greater gift we’re asking God for, fold it two times, put it in the collection basket, and bring it towards the altar as a sign that we’re offering this to our Father through Jesus. No one will count it. But I will take all of them and look at them one by one and pray for these intentions. Part of a priest’s greatest duties and joys is to pray for the flock entrusted to him (If you don’t want me to see it, then just keep the card to yourself). And I lovingly challenge everyone to tell one person this week the gift we’re asking for. Because it becomes more real when we tell someone else. And we’re going to follow up on this on Feb. 28. How do I know? Because I prepare my homilies in advance!

I feel energized already. Because the path is clearer, God’s will is slightly clearer, and there’s a chance to grow, and we’re going to help each other do it. “Strive for the greater gifts!”

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