This past Thursday, I met the two college seminarians, Paul and Adrian, who are assigned to the Fatima Catholic Outreach Center for their Thursday apostolate. I was there to say grace and to give a Thanksgiving blessing for those gathered for the community Thanksgiving lunch. Soon after I sat down for lunch with the two seminarians, one of the seminarians, Adrian, asked me why I became a priest. I gave him the two-minute version of my vocation story, and then I asked him why he entered the seminary. He told me about his life. He is from Newark, New Jersey, the only son of a single mom. His mother had a lot of difficulties when she was a new mother and contemplated suicide. She was saved by meeting some members of the Ecclesial Movement, the Neocatechumenal Way, and came back to the church. Adrian was raised in the church, was an altar boy, and was involved in the many youth activities of his parish. But he never felt loved. He said his mom was so busy and he had no relationship with his father – he never talked to him. He was picked on by other kids at school. He said, “when you never hear anyone say to you, ‘I love you’, you start to believe your life doesn’t matter, that you are not loved, and that you are not worthy of love.” All he saw was suffering around him. He began to contemplate suicide. What is the point of living with all these problems? What is the meaning of it all? He was about 13. Around this time, he went with a local youth group to Brazil for World Youth Day. There he met a priest, Fr. Andres, and was totally struck by the presence of this man. He and Fr. Andres were living in the same world, but this man was free. Fr. Andres had problems and difficulties like everybody else, but this man knew that he was loved – loved by God. And this was attractive. Adrian met in Fr. Andres someone who revealed that there was an answer to his question. In Fr. Andres, Adrian could see his life in a new way. He saw in Fr. Andres what he was made for – exactly what it was that his heart was longing for. He saw what it meant to be a son – a son of God. He was captivated and wanted to belong to what this priest belonged to, and in his freedom, he began to follow what had moved him. He was no longer afraid of living. It was not until he met Fr. Andres that he could see how what Christ said is true – that it corresponds to his heart. In this encounter with Fr. Andres, his heart was conquered by Christ. He experienced a freedom and a comfort that he had not known before – something he thought was unknowable. This is the experience of the Kingdom of Christ – the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. It is only by being seized by Christ like that, that one can risk his life – to make the bold move, without fear, to enter the seminary today. I needed that witness to be reminded of why I entered the seminary and that I need that same experience today, to live the priesthood.
St. Paul writes to the Colossians, “He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” We are delivered or saved from the enemy – we are redeemed, i.e., have our sins forgiven, by encountering the mercy of Christ. The good thief was amazed and seized by what he witnessed as he hung next to Jesus. This innocent man, brutally tortured and dying, cries out in prayer, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” This man, suffering tremendously was free of bitterness, resentment, and hatred. What Jesus asks for – his response to suffering and sin – is something unforeseen and unforeseeable – and it is something that corresponds to the heart of the thief – what he is longing for. From a position of total poverty of spirit, the good thief cries out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The plea of the good thief – “remember me” – expresses the desire of the human heart to be loved, esteemed, wanted, desired and to belong – to be close to another’s heart. To be forgotten is to be lost, ignored, discarded, or to be deemed of little value or worth. He desires mercy, and Jesus affirms that there is an answer to what he is looking for that makes sense of his life: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Today, even with all your wretchedness, brokenness, sinfulness, and guilt, you are close to my heart; you are close to the heart of God. You are not forgotten. Your life matters. You are loved.
Jesus’ kingdom comes not by military might, brute force, or the enforcement of the law, but by awakening freedom in hearts seized by his love. The fulfillment of Christ’s promise – the new life that he brings – comes not in some distant future, but today for those who are meek and humble of heart who wonder at what is happening before their eyes and allow themselves to be seized by what they see. Let’s ask for that grace to see what Adrian and the good thief saw because Jesus is here for us today in the companionship of those conquered by his love inviting us into his Kingdom.