Father Mike’s Blog
The beginning of the Gospel today begins with the request of the Apostles to Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith.” And Jesus replies, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this Mulberry tree, ‘be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” The mustard seed is one of the smallest seeds, but it also grows into a large plant. And so when we hear this, we translate this as meaning, we only need a small amount of faith to produce great works. But what it really means is, God can produce great fruitfulness, through the most insignificant means. It means that God doesn’t need some large or great product to get the results he needs. What he needs is a humble person who believes that God can use him, and trusts that God will be there to help him do His will.
There’s a story about a pastor at a large parish who was struggling with all kinds of problems. Until very recently, the parish had been the largest church in the diocese, with the largest school, the most ministries, and a very active group of volunteers and ministers, but uncontrollable circumstances changed the dynamic of the parish. The number of families dropped from 2,500 to 1,500. The number of students in the school dropped from 1,000 to 500. The number of ministries offered dropped from 150 to 75. The offertory collection had dropped drastically, and they were looking at cutting back on the staff and they couldn’t even maintain the buildings and grounds on the parish. To make matters even worse, for the first time ever, they were doing more funerals than baptisms. Everyone in the parish was complaining, and they all longed for the “glory days” when every other church in the diocese looked at them as the model of what a successful parish was.
To try and solve the problems, the pastor gathered the associate pastors, deacons, nuns, and parish staff as well as the pastoral and financial councils, for a day of reflection led by contemplative nun. They all gathered in the parish life center and the pastor introduced Sr. Benedicta, this diminutive, frail, and evidently older nun, who was dressed in full habit resembling an icon from a bygone era of the church. She moved across the front of the room as if she was gliding, and you were sure that under that habit she had a yardstick to smack you on the hand if you got out of line. Looking over her bifocals at the large crowd, Sister led them in prayer in her soft yet confident voice. She began her reflection by telling everyone that the pastor had briefed her on the current status of the parish, and how everyone was trying to cope with all the new struggles of parish life.
She pulled out a bible and handed it to one of the associate pastors and told him to read from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 17, verse 5: “The apostles said to the Lord, ‘increase our faith.’ The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’” Sr. Benedicta stopped the young priest there and took the bible from him. “What does that mean?” she asked. The staff and councils looked at her but dared not to answer. “Does it mean, that if I truly believe in God with all my heart, my mind, and my soul, that God will increase our parish roll, that families will move back in the neighborhood and fill up our school, that all of sudden we will have tons of volunteers to minister to all of our ministries, and that of course, our offertory collection will go up?”
Sister handed the bible to one of the deacons and told him to continue reading. “Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘come here immediately and take your place at table’? Would he not rather say to him, ‘prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished’? Sr. Benedicta stopped the deacon there and took the bible. “Do you think the Master is cruel?” This poor servant has been outside working in the field, and instead of letting him sit down and rest, he makes him wait on the master! Isn’t that pretty demanding of him?” She looks up and several of the group are nodding their assent at her remark. The sister looks at them sternly though and says, “But how long was the servant in the field? How long was he scheduled to work? Nowhere does it say he was out there in the sun for 8 hours. Maybe he was scheduled to be outside for the first 4 hours of his shift in the morning while it was cool, and then he comes in at noon to serve lunch for the family, and then after his own lunch break, he works inside for the remainder of the day. Maybe it was his agreement that he doesn’t eat until after the master ate. And maybe that is the same agreement of all the other staff members. What would happen if this servant got to sit down and eat at the master’s table while the other workers who had been there just as long, still had to work and now wait on him?”
Sr. Benedicta now walked up to a young person in the group, the only one on staff under 40 years of age. “You must be the youth minister?” she asked. “Yes sister” the young woman replied. Sister handed her the bible and directed her to finish the verse. “Is he grateful to that servant because he did what was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you were commanded, say, ‘we are unprofitable servants; we did what we were obliged to do.’” The nun stopped her there and closed the bible. She stood over the youth director and said to her, “We are unprofitable servants, isn’t that a harsh reality? It’s like saying, ‘I am nothing. I’m only here to do whatever you need me to do, and to do it without thanks.’ Do you ever feel that way?” The entire room nodded a “yes”. “Well how do you think that is affecting the rest of the parish?”
Sr. Benedicta walked away from the group, turned to face them again and then sat down in a chair and said, “Let me tell you a story.”
There was a young man, we’ll call him John, who had just graduated from college. All through high school and college John had ben very active in the church, and even seriously considered a vocation to the priesthood. When he came home from school, he went to his pastor and asked if he could work in youth ministry. The pastor was looking for a full time youth minister and so he took a gamble on John and hired him. Immediately, John was a success. He had a great talent for reaching out to the youth. He could relate to them on their level, and yet was very good at catechesis and involving them in parish ministry. Within a short time, John added a junior high youth group and it took off. He was so good at what he was doing, he also got asked to be on the diocesan youth board, and started helping out on the programs and retreats for the whole diocese. John became high in demand and started leading retreats for other parishes, and then for other dioceses, and then on a regional and national level. But after many years, things began to change. The number of youth in the parish declined, and the attitude of the youth began to change. John wasn’t the cool 25 year old who could relate to them so well, he was now the “kind of cool” 40 year old, who was close to being burnt out in youth ministry. To make matters worse, many of his friends from college, his peers who had helped out in youth ministry, and now even some of the youth he had ministered to early on were now very successful business men and women who were making very good money and had larger homes, while he was still struggling to get by on a church salary. Frustrated and unhappy with his life, John went to talk to his pastor. The pastor sat him down and tried to encourage him, and then asked, “When was the last time you went on retreat?” “Well, I led the sophomore retreat last month.” “No, no, no. Not led a retreat, but been on one for yourself?” “I don’t know maybe 10 years ago.” “You need to go on a directed retreat. Go up to the Jesuit retreat center on the river, and make an 8-day silent retreat, and ask for Fr. Ignatius as your spiritual director.” Looking forward to eight days of vacation paid for by the church, the young man scheduled his retreat and went to the retreat house to meet Fr. Ignatius.
After Mass on the first day, the John met Fr. Ignatius for his appointment, and as they sat across from each other, Fr. Ignatius asked him to describe what was going on. John went into great detail about the consolations of youth ministry in years past, but the desolation he was experiencing now. Fr. Ignatius looked him in the eyes, and said, “This is what I want you to do. Tonight after dinner, go to the Eucharistic Chapel where we have 24-hour adoration. It’s beautiful in there. They have a gorgeous monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament exposed, and you’re surrounded by these beautiful stained glass windows and statues of the saints. And right behind the altar is this giant crucifix carved from marble by this famous Italian artist. Just go and stay there and allow yourself to rest in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for at least an hour. And while you are there in that intimate time with Christ, I want you to meditate on these two questions: ‘What is it that I do? and Why do I do it?’ And then tomorrow after Mass, we’ll discuss how that went.” That night, John did just what Fr. Ignatius directed, and the next day, they met again to follow up.
As they sat down across from each other, Fr. Ignatius asked, “So, what do you do?” John immediately went into great detail about all his work responsibilities. After the long list of things that John did, Fr. Ignatius asked him, “Why do you do it?” “Well,” John answered, “at first, my pastor asked me to do certain things, but as the ministry grew, I saw other programs that needed to be added for the benefit of the youth and the parish, and each year when I met with the pastor, we amended my job description. So I do all those things in the parish to fulfill my responsibilities, but the extra things for the diocese and outside the parish, I do that on my own time as a bonus for some extra income.” “Yeah…” said Fr. Ignatius. “OK, this is what I want you to do tonight. I want you to go to our Eucharistic Chapel. You know, we have 24-hour adoration before the exposed Blessed Sacrament in this gorgeous monstrance, great big thing on the main altar. Its beautiful in there, surrounded by the German stained glass windows and these statues of all the famous Jesuit saints on the side altars. And right above the main altar behind the monstrance, is this giant marble crucifix that we got from Italy, carved by Giorgio something or other. I want you to go in there and allow yourself to just be in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for at least an hour. And while you are there in that intimate time with Christ, I want you to meditate on these two questions: ‘What is it that I do? and Why do I do it?’ And then tomorrow after Mass, we’ll discuss how that went.”
John took the instructions to heart, saying to himself, I must have done it wrong last night, and proceeded to follow Fr. Ignatius’ direction.
The next day after Mass, John meets with Fr. Ignatius, and Fr. Ignatius asks, “So, how did it go?” “Well, I think I know why you gave me the same direction as the day before. While I was praying, I realized, you didn’t want my resume, you wanted to know ‘what I do.’ And so I had to have a little introspection, but this is what I talked about with Jesus. As a youth minister, its more than just job descriptions and tasks, what I really do, is more like counseling and therapy. I am the advocate, the mediator, and the confidant for these kids. They come to me with stuff they can’t tell their parents, or teachers, or even best friends. I get these young people through the toughest moments of their lives.” “Oh…” said Fr. Ignatius, “and why do you do that?” “Well that is tough too, but I think it is because, first, I’m good at it. I think God gave me a gift. But second, because I actually love doing it. It’s tough sometimes, but I still love it.” “Yeah…” said Fr. Ignatius. “OK, this is what I want you to do tonight. On the back side of the main Church, we have a Eucharistic Chapel. And in there, we have 24-hour adoration before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. You’ll really like it in there. I suggest you go up close to the main altar, because we have this gorgeous monstrance where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed. And at night, the lights coming through the stained glass windows light up the whole sanctuary in this blue aura. And then you are surrounded by these statues of all these famous Jesuit saints around the chapel. And my favorite part in the whole chapel, is above the main altar, right behind the monstrance, we have this giant marble crucifix donated to us by the head of the Society of Jesus which was carved by a 18th century Italian sculptor. Now there’s a lot to take in in there, but don’t let those distract you, let them aid you in intimately placing yourself in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Stay there for at least an hour and while you are there in that time with Christ, I want you to meditate on these two questions: ‘What is it that I do? and Why do I do it?’ And then tomorrow after Mass, we’ll discuss how that went.” “Are you serious?” John asked. Fr. Ignatius looked at him puzzled, and said, “You can do it, it’s just one hour, and it’s beautiful in there.”
This went on for 3 more days. And each day, John’s contemplation revealed a little more about “what he did” and “why he did it”. Finally, on the 6th day, frustrated about receiving the same direction for 6 straight days, with no feedback to explain why he had to keep doing the same thing, John stormed into the chapel, plopped down on the front pew, and started yelling at Jesus in the monstrance. As he vented to the Blessed Sacrament, he looked past the Eucharist to the marble crucifix behind it. This truly was a beautiful piece of art, and a bit different from most crucifixes. In this particular depiction of the suffering Christ, Jesus doesn’t seem to be in agony from the nails or the asphyxiation of his own body’s weight. Rather, the pressure seems to be coming from above, like a giant weight was placed on his shoulders and was contorting his body as he struggled to hold it up. John felt like his own heart had just been pierced. His eyes went from the contorted body on the crucifix back to the Blessed Sacrament. And his eyes filled with tears.
An hour later, John was knocking on Fr. Ignatius’ door in the Jesuit residence. Fr. Ignatius opened the door to John, whose eyes were red, and yet, John didn’t appear sad, but rather relieved. “Father, I know we weren’t scheduled to meet until after Mass tomorrow, but I needed to talk right now.” Fr. Ignatius let John come into his den and they sat down in the chairs. “What is it?” he asked. “I went into the chapel tonight like you told me to do. And I was kind of mad that you gave me the same direction for the 6th straight day. And as I vented to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, I started staring at the crucifix, and then I asked that question: What is it that I do?” “And what do you do” asked Fr. Ignatius. “I put all the worries, all the problems, all the weight of my kids on me. I take on all this stuff and then I complain about it rather than ask for help.” “Why would you do that?” “Because, I like it. I like to complain. I like everybody noticing how hard I work, and how little I get paid, and how unappreciated I am. And honestly, I do it because I don’t think anyone else can do it, at least not as well as I can. And I do it because I want them to praise me for it. I do it because I think if I do all of this, then I will feel loved.” “And what happened when you realized this?” “I felt like my heart was pierced, and I couldn’t stop crying.” “Why?” “Because, I looked at that statue of Christ, and I asked Him, ‘What is that you do?’ and then I realized, all the weight of the world, all the anxiety and worries, all the problems, even all the sins, all my sins… they are on Him. That’s what He did. He bore all that on the Cross, so we wouldn’t have to. And so I asked Him, ‘Why do you do that?’ and He said, ‘Because I love you.’ And that’s when it hit me. I’m called to carry a cross, my cross. I don’t have to be crucified. That’s what he did for me, for us. Yes, I have to die to self, so I can live for others, but I don’t have to be crucified for them. His crucifixion is once and for all, so that we can be free to accept our crosses. But also so we can be free to share with others that all the worries they have, all their anxieties and problems, and even all their sins, they can place them on His cross, and he will take them away, and then he will help us carry our cross. I’ve heard it over and over again, ‘He will never give us more than we can handle.’ I guess I didn’t really believe that.”
“What do you mean you didn’t believe that?” “I didn’t believe that Jesus really takes all that upon Himself. I didn’t believe that I could let go of all things that I had placed on my cross, and let Jesus take it upon His. I didn’t believe that the cross of discipleship that I carry, he gave that to me, as an opportunity to trust in Him. I guess deep down, I didn’t really believe that Jesus did what I was preaching He did, because deep down, I thought I had to do it myself. If I really believed he loved me, I wouldn’t need the praise of others. I think I had more faith in myself, than I had in God.”
Fr. Ignatius turned his head a bit and smiled, and then he looked at John and said, “Can I ask you a question: What is it that you do?” John smiled back at the old Jesuit and responded, “I carry my cross.” At that, John stood up and started walking toward the door, and the priest then asked one final question, “And why do you do that?” As John opened the door to leave, he smiled back at Fr. Ignatius and said, “Because He asked me to.”
As Sr. Benedicta finished he story about John and Fr. Ignatius, she looked out over the room and noticed that everyone was hanging on her every word. She stood up and walked over to the pastor and stood above him and addressed the room again: “It never says in the Gospel if the master thanked the servant for the work he did either in the field, or serving the dinner. And so we could wonder if our master is grateful that we do what he asks. Is God grateful to you because you did what was commanded of you? Well, He was so grateful, that he took all your worries, all your anxieties, all your sufferings, and all your sins upon himself. And even what He did command us to do, He told us: you do not have to do it alone. I am with you always, until the end of the world. Do you believe that? Well… Do you believe that? “Yes sister.” They hesitantly responded, like a class of frightened 5th graders.
Sr. Benedicta gave a wry smile and asked, “Do you really believe that Christ called you to be His servant, that He gave each of you a cross of discipleship, and that He is going to help you carry that if you only trust in Him to do so?” She pushed her glasses down to the tip of her nose and peered out over them awaiting the response: “Well… ?” “Yes, sister.” They answered, as if it were a trained response.
Sister pushed them on: “When you look at the stewardship God has called you to do in your parish, and the crosses each of you bear with his aid and at his invitation; do you really have the faith to respond to our Lord and Master: We are unprofitable servants. We have done what we were obliged to do? And what are you are obliged to do? To carry your Cross! And why do you do it? Because He asked you to! Because He has faith in you, faith that this little mustard seed, can produce the Kingdom of Heaven, right here at this church. Do you have that faith?” With a sense of enthusiasm, the room answered together: “Yes, sister!”
“Good,” she answered, “because that is one very large Mulberry tree in the middle of your parish.”