When I was in the seminary, one of my classmates spent the larger part of one summer break working at a camp in the Bronx run by the Missionaries of Charity. The Missionaries of Charity is the order of religious sisters founded by Mother Teresa. This “camp” was for inner-city kids and, for the most part, took place in the parking lot next to the convent where the sisters lived. I went to visit my classmate and spent a day at the camp and an overnight with him in the residence over the homeless shelter and soup kitchen also served by the sisters. It was brutally hot in the upper floors of the residence. There was no air-conditioning. With the windows open, the street noise from buses, ambulances, and people yelling and screaming all through the night made it almost impossible to sleep. (The people yelling were most likely high on drugs, drunk, or suffering from mental illness, or a combination of the three. That was life in the neighborhood). I was there just one day and one night and thought, “how can he spend the whole summer here? How can he stand it?” From an outside perspective, choosing to live in this situation is totally crazy until you meet the sisters. The sisters, very much like Mother Teresa, in the midst of such (to put it mildly) uncomfortable conditions, were happy. They were radiant and full of peace and joy. It was surprising, but the life they were living, when you encountered them, was attractive. It was because they were holy women. My friend spent the summer there because he recognized that holiness, and when one recognizes holiness, one wants to stay with that person and freely give of yourself to the life you see. One wants to be holy too. In that holy person, one recognizes a correspondence between holiness and the need of the heart, and that correspondence moves one to stay and to share life with them, to follow their way of living. Charity – the gift of self for the good of the other – is a free response to the recognition of the holy. It is a desire to love in union with the love you see. Charity is not performed for a “reward” or for any ulterior motive.
We see this dynamic of charity in the encounter between Elisha and the Shunemite woman. She is charitable because she recognizes Elisha as a holy man, and her response is to make a place for Elisha when he comes by so that he can stay with them and dine with them, i.e., share life with them. Her reward – not something she expected or was looking for – was the gift of new life represented by the promise fulfilled of the baby son. Holiness is a “newness of life” – the life of the resurrection – the divine life that has entered our life. Christ died and rose from the dead so that “we too might live in newness of life.” Jesus’ plan is that he communicates this divine life through the instrument of our humanity – through a human encounter. He says to his Apostles, “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” He goes on, “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” The prophet is someone chosen by God to bear the word of God – to be the ambassador or representative of God. As someone who represents God, the prophet makes present the divine presence. When one receives a prophet, not for any other motive but because one recognizes in him the presence of God – the holy – one receives the prophet’s reward, i.e., a share in holiness. A righteous man is someone who is in a right relationship with God, i.e., someone who is living a holy life. The righteous man’s reward is this union with God. The third example Jesus gives about giving the cup of water to the disciple says that the life of charity is a response to holiness, and charity, divine love, is the “reward.”
I remember hearing a story about Mother Teresa (and I’m sure this story is not unique) that when she wanted to set up a home for the poor and the needy in this particular neighborhood, someone said to her, “Mother, how are you going to pay for that?” Her response was, “Don’t worry, God has plenty of money.” The Missionaries of Charity rely totally on God’s providence – whatever has been given to them, and Mother’s experience, like that of many religious who take vows of poverty, is that there is never a shortage of what they need. People give freely because they want to participate in the life of charity when they see charity or holiness in action.
One of the big fallouts of the priest scandal is that collections are down. Understandably so. But we must realize that the faithful are not going to give again simply because all kinds of safe environment policies have been enacted and there is much more financial transparency than before. All those things are good and necessary, but people are only going to give again and support the initiatives of the Church if they see holiness – if they see their priests as “holy men of God.” One takes up the cross, makes sacrifices, and follows Jesus because one recognizes in him and in those who follow him a greater love – a love greater than that of mother and father and that of son or daughter. We recognize a love greater than human love. This is the love that we aspire to because it is the love we are made for. The sacrifices or “taking up the cross” – the losing of our life – are first and foremost experienced as an attraction, not a burden. When we listen to our hearts and follow, we find and embrace this “newness of life.”
It goes without saying that we have to be good stewards of our parish resources, but I can promise you that it is not “all about the money.” Our ability to be a healthy parish in everything that “healthy” implies depends first and foremost on whether our focus is on holiness or not. It depends on whether we, (not just the priest but all the baptized), are living prophetic, righteous lives of discipleship or not. Holiness is what attracts. Holiness is what generates new life. Holiness is what we all are looking for, and we can all recognize it (and its opposite) when we see it. Please pray for me and all priest to be holy men of God. I’m a priest and stay a priest because I’ve been attracted to and have experienced a “newness of life”, and it is this newness of life that I hope and pray is able to be received through me here at St. Charles.