This past week, I went on vacation and stayed with friends of mine from my first parish who have a house in the mountains. We spent a lot of time hanging out together, talking, and simply sharing life. We had Mass together in the morning, prayed the Rosary, ate all of our meals together, went for walks, a long car ride, and a hike. We also went to a concert and saw a play at a local playhouse. Through all these things, but especially over the meals and after, we spent a lot of time talking about parish life and family life. I got to share my struggles and challenges as a parish priest. This couple shared their challenges regarding life in the Church and many practical matters regarding the lack of connection and sense of family in the life of the parish. They got to hear where I was coming from as a priest, and I got to better understand where they were coming from as parents and Christians striving to live out their baptismal calling. I found this time together very refreshing and life giving. We didn’t solve the problems of the Church or the world. That is not what gives life. Rather, this time was fulfilling because we got to know each other better – to know and to be known. In this time of conversation and listening, the personal relationship we have grows stronger and we feel accompanied on the journey – me in the priesthood and they in their vocation as parents and the call to holiness in the life of the Church.
My experience with this family this past week helped me to understand what Jesus meant when he tells the person who asks, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” that they should “strive to enter through the narrow gate” because many will try to enter “but will not be strong enough.” When they come knocking at the time of judgment, the Lord will say, “I do not know where you are from.” What is lacking is that personal relationship with the Lord – knowing the Lord personally and allowing oneself to be known by the Lord. We can tell from the context of the conversation and the Lord’s response that “the few” mentioned in the question refers not to a number or a percentage but “the chosen few” – the faithful Jews who have studied the scriptures and followed the law. Jesus offers their protest at the closed door, “But we ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.” Yes, you can do all those things – know the teaching and follow the law, but if your study and moral achievements do not lead to a personal relationship with God, then it amounts to “evil doing”, that is, it completely misses the mark of what salvation is all about. The “narrow gate” is not following a strict set of rules but a personal relationship with Jesus in which he is known and we allow ourselves to be known.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews has to remind the Christian community that their relationship with the Lord is personal – that of an intimate family relationship – Father and son. If God is just an abstract law giver and enforcer, then the person might learn not to get “in trouble” but will not grow in the life of discipleship, grow in the personal relationship with God. There is a relationship of love that underlies the trials of life and the trials are meant for me to know myself and to know the Lord more profoundly. Only in living these trials in the context of a relationship of love will one come to “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”
The way we “grow stronger” in our relationship with God is through intimate conversation – sharing our struggles and challenges and listening to others on the journey in the context of prayer. I get together every Wednesday morning at 6:00 a.m. with a few men from the parish to reflect on the Scriptures for the coming Sunday. I invite any man in the parish to come and to share life together in this way. In the Fall, the parish will be offering several small-group faith sharing opportunities for men and for woman. Please stay tuned for these announcements coming soon and talk to me if you wish to be part of one of the first groups. My hope is that our parish becomes a place not where people merely fulfill their religious obligations and have opportunities to learn about the faith but where we all can encounter Christ, develop a personal relationship with him, and feel free to allow ourselves to be known within the family of the Church.