In this season of new beginnings, just three weeks into a new year, the Church today recalls what we might call the organizational beginning of Jesus’ public mission – with Jesus’ call of Simon and Andrew and James and John to be apostles and missionaries, the very core from whom the Church would expand and grow. Today’s Gospel must surely be a Religious Vocation Director’s dream text! Not that I would ever be likely to serve as a vocation director, part of the job description of which is presumably to be young and thin. Nor have I ever been much called upon to give Paulist Appeal talks, which is what is supposed to happen today. Some of you may have come to Mass today expecting to hear your former Pastor, who will be celebrating his Golden Jubilee, 50 years as a priest in 2018, and who was scheduled to be preaching our Paulist Appeal today. Unfortunately he is in bed with the flu. So you’re stuck with me instead.
Be that as it may, today’s Gospel is indeed a Vocation preacher’s dream, and so it is an easy transition to speak about a particular vocation – that of the Paulist Fathers – and to ask all of you who are here today not necessarily to become Paulists yourselves (although if there is anyone here who fits that profile, let’s talk later) but to offer your support to the Paulists – as people in this parish have done so consistently and so generously ever since the late Fr. Tom Connellon came to Immaculate Conception in 1973 as our first Paulist pastor.
By the way, one of the best Vocation-Promotion-Recruitment films ever made was Fisher of Men, our own Paulist Vocation-Promotion-Recruitment film from the early 1960s, which takes its title from Jesus’ famous words in today’s Gospel. It was written and produced by the founder of Paulist Productions, as a "day in the life" of a fictional Paulist priest (played by Brian Keith, the star of the 961 movie, The Parent Trap), with scenes filmed at out Paulist parish and at our university ministry in Los Angeles. It is visually very dated obviously, but still well worth seeing.
One of my own favorite vocation stories is from the 4th century. In 391, Saint Augustine, then 36 years old, but baptized only 4 years, visited the North African town of Hippo. Knowing Augustine’s reputation as a talented orator, the Bishop, Valeriaus, took advantage of his presence to say that, because of his age, he needed the assistance of a younger priest, who was a good speaker. The congregation took the hint; grabbed hold of Augustine; and refused to release him until he agreed to be ordained!
Like Saint Augustine, our 19th-century Paulist founder, Servant of God Isaac Hecker, also told his own account of his own personal journey – how God led him into the Catholic Church and then inspired him to devote the rest of his life to leading others there as well. Often in my boyhood, Hecker wrote, when lying at night on the shavings before the oven in the bake house, I would start up, roused in spite of myself, by some great thought … What does God desire from me? … What is it He has sent me into the world to do? These were the ceaseless questions of my heart, that rested, meanwhile, in an unshaken confidence that time would bring the answer.
For all the drama we may be inclined to associate with the vocations of the Apostles or of Saint Augustine, Hecker’s account illustrates how God’s call can come in the midst of our ordinary, everyday activities. And it was to share the Church’s life in our ordinary, everyday world that Hecker founded the Paulist Fathers 160 years ago. Animated by Hecker’s vision and inspiration, generations of Paulist priests have crisscrossed this country in order (as we like to say) to “Give the Word a Voice.”
But none of that happens automatically. When the Paulists started they were just four in number and had the immediate task of building a brand new parish, church and all, from nothing. So they sent out an appeal, announcing their hopes and plans, and asking for contributions to buy land and build on it. A lot has changed in the world in 160 years. But that hasn’t. We need all of you to be our partners, to share our hopes, and to help us build and grow the community of God’s kingdom here in East Tennessee and throughout this country.
The brochures in the pews illustrate how our Annual Paulist Appeal supports the important work of priestly formation, our seminarians (some of whom you know personally). Our Annual Paulist Appeal supports this important he work of priestly formation, which is essential for our future; it supports our mission and ministries in the present; and it helps the community care for our senior Paulists, some of whom have served here in the past. If you have already been contacted by mail and have already given, I thank you. For everyone else, there is an envelope attached to the brochure and there are larger, easier-to-use envelopes in the pews. Whatever or however you may plan to give, please take the time between now and the collection to check the boxes and fill in the blanks, and put that envelope in the 2nd collection.
Again on behalf of all the Paulists Fathers from senior ministry to our students and novices, I thank you for your support of the Paulist Fathers past and present.
Homily for the Annual Paulist Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, January 21, 2018.
To give online to the Annual Paulist Appeal, go to paulist.org/apa