Do it not for yourself, but for Him!
Sunday, November 14, 2010
In just eleven days, we will celebrate Thanksgiving: a time to take a break from school or work; a time to be with family; a time to reflect on the many blessings that God has bestowed upon us and to give thanks to Him. I know that this year, among the many things I will give thanks for is the marvelous opportunity I have had these past twelve plus years to serve in vocations, most especially to work with those who have opened themselves up to even consider the possibility of the priesthood. It has been a tremendous blessing that I will forever be grateful to Almighty God.
No doubt when we think about Thanksgiving, we call to mind the story of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, the Indians, and that legendary feast of gratitude to God. But if we are to be accurate the “First Thanksgiving” did not take place at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts in 1621. I would argue that we had many, many Thanksgiving celebrations beginning a hundred years earlier here in Florida. I can say that not because of the presence of turkey or corn, but for one simple fact and that is that a century before the pilgrims came to Massachusetts, mass was being celebrated here on our soil. In fact, the word “Eucharist” itself, as most of you know, means “Thanksgiving.”
Since the early 16th Century down through today, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass has been celebrated across our state by brave missionaries, fervent religious and diocesan priests. Whether it was that first Easter Mass in 1528 in what is today St. Petersburg or the first Christmas Mass in 1539 near present day Tallahassee, or that first parish mass that came with the founding of St. Augustine in 1565, heroic priests have been coming to these shores for nearly five centuries. Whether it be someone like Father Luis de Cancer, the brave Dominican missionary, who despite hostile threats did his best to plant the Gospel among the native peoples around Tampa Bay though he himself and two other Dominicans would be martyred there in 1549. Whether it be someone like Augustin Verot, the First Bishop of St. Augustine, who in the 19th Century like his fellow handful of priests here traveled by horseback from town to town to celebrate mass, hear confessions, confirm, catechize, and bury their dead all in an effort to spread the faith at a time and place where Catholics were often persecuted. Whether it be the many Irish priests who came to Florida in the 20th Century to minister to a diverse and widespread flock. They embraced a new culture and paved the way for those who would come after them. I think of someone like Monsignor Bryan Walsh, a priest of the Archdiocese of Miami. Msgr. Walsh was born in Ireland but came to Florida to serve wherever he was needed. He learned Spanish and as head of Operation Pedro Pan he helped rescue some 14,000 children from Communist Cuba and give them a new life full of hope and promise in this blessed land of freedom. We have so much to be thankful for these giants, these selfless and dedicated priests who have and continue to give us so much. It was out of this long legacy of heroes that this seminary was born.
As Fr. Alvarez mentioned on Friday night, this is my thirty-fifth Vocation Awareness Weekend and while there are many memories that I have from them all, it is not the twenty-five that I have been a part of as Director of Vocations, nor is it the eight I helped to put on while I was a seminarian here, but rather the very first one that I attended as a senior in high school that most stands out in my memory. I remember coming into this chapel for the first time on that Friday night (much like you did just two days ago). I remember sitting in these pews and looking up at this mural. I remember an overwhelming sense of the holy. I remember encountering the Lord in this holy place. I am so grateful that I put my fears aside and as a shy kid from a small town went on that Vocation Awareness Weekend. I am so glad that I made the decision to apply to come here and that after graduation from high school even more so that I did come here. It is a decision that I have never once regretted!
As you have heard this weekend that as great as seminary life is, and indeed it is, it is not always easy. It is not without struggle. If you want something easy, don’t come here! Just a few weeks after the completion of my first year in the seminary, I remember watching on TV the 40th Anniversary celebrations of the D-Day Invasion in Normandy, France. On that occasion, President Reagan (who along with Pope John Paul II would later bring down the evil and godless communist system in Europe) addressed a group of Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, France. Pointe du Hoc was a Nazi installation built on a 100 foot cliff overlooking Omaha Beach. These Rangers, most of whom were your age or close to it, had been assigned the impossible task of scaling these cliffs. They had to use grappling hooks to try to climb the cliffs as enemy fire rained down upon them. Of the 225 men assigned to the mission, only 90 survived, but they did it! They took the fortification. On that anniversary with the memorial behind him and the Rangers, now old men, in front of him, President Reagan addressed them with these words: Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped win a war!”
Why are you here? Why are you here today? Is it because your Vocation Director bothered you? Is it because your pastor, another priest, or your campus minister thought it would be good for you? Maybe…but I believe there is a deeper reason. You are here because you feel the call to something more – even though you are not sure what it is.
It has been a great joy to serve as the Vocations Director for my diocese, but I have to admit that there have been times in this work that have brought me sadness as well, namely, when someone, who is so clearly called to the priesthood, walks away from his vocation. We hear some of the reasons for that in today’s gospel. Maybe you’re afraid of making a mistake. Perhaps you’re unsure if you can make this sacrifice. Maybe you don’t believe that you can do it. Or perhaps you are influenced by the voices of family or friends that may tell you to give up on this idea of priesthood or tell you that you are crazy for even trying. Did not the heroes of Pointe du Hoc feel much the same way?
Like them, you are called to put your fears aside for a noble endeavor. A noble endeavor no less valiant than what the “boys of Pointe du Hoc” did! A noble endeavor no less heroic than the efforts of those missionary and pioneer priests to our state! For the battle for souls is worth giving everything you got! Come here if you want to discern that call. Some of you are called to the priesthood. Some of you know that already. Some of you are afraid to admit it! Whatever the case, whatever is happing in your life, don’t let those fears hold you back! Put aside those fears. Scale the cliffs of fear and discover what God is asking of you. Do it not for yourself, but for Him!
Before me are not the veterans of a foreign war, but those being called into battle today! Before me are not the heroes of yesterday, but the saints of tomorrow! Before me are not those who can rest on past accomplishments, but rather those who are called to greatness now! Before me are not those who have figured their lives out, rather it is those who are being invited to something more!
I hope you will pardon my enthusiasm for the priesthood. I do sincerely want you to follow theLord wherever He leads you whether that is back here or somewhere else (there is no shame in that). Yet I must confess that I love the Lord, His Church, and His gift of the priesthood. I am so thankful, more than words could ever express, that He called me, as imperfect as I am, to His holy priesthood. When I think about the priesthood and everything that it is, I keep coming back to those words of Henri Lacordarie, a French Dominican and a contemporary of St. John Vianney, who described the priesthood in these words:To live in the midst of the world without wishing its pleasures; To be a member of each family, yet belonging to none; To share all sufferings; to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds; To go from men to God and offer Him their prayers; To return from God to men to bring pardon and hope; To have a heart of fire for charity and a heart of bronze for chastity; To teach and to pardon; to console and bless always. My God, what a life! And it is yours, O Priest of Jesus Christ!”
(In July, 1998 Fr. Len Plazewski was appointed as Director of Vocations for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. In September 2005, he was elected President of the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors and was re-elected in 2007).