One of the priests I’ll never forget in the seminary was Fr. Acrea. This priest was a holy, holy, man. He was in his late 70s, and many of us seminarians looked up to him. In one homily, he reflected on his life as a priest. He said to us, “I look back on my life as a priest, and I see who God intended me to serve.” These people were like appointments that God had scheduled. Fr. Acrea saw in these encounters God’s providential grace, where in some mysterious way, God used him to be a messenger of hope, love, and grace for God’s people. Now that I’ve been a priest a few years, I have had a glimpse of what Fr. Acrea was talking about. I want to share with you all, three of these appointments that I believe God scheduled, guided me to, so that God could reveal his love and grace through sacraments. These three appointments were all in the context of the Sacrament of Anointing.
Earlier this week, in fact, was one such appointment. I received a call to visit an elderly woman who is in hospice care. I arrived at the house and greeted her daughter. When we began the Sacrament of Anointing, I noticed this woman was having a difficult time sitting upright. So I said to her, “okay, young lady, you can lay down. God wants you to experience comfort and peace. You lay down, and we will pray with you.” And so, the daughter and I helped her slowly lay back down. Then we began to pray, I anointed her, and I held up the Eucharist saying, “Behold…” Immediately, as if all her strength had returned, this woman sat straight up, ready and excited to receive communion.
Friends, this woman of faith was preaching to me and she shares that message with all of us. This is her message: we all hunger for God. This lent, we have been singing that powerful song, “Lord I need you.” She knew this. And that’s what we remember tonight, as Jesus institutes the Eucharist, he reminds us that we need him in our lives. If we want to grow in love and friendship with God, we need the Eucharist. If we want to love others like Jesus, we need the spiritual food of the Eucharist. If we want to be healed from our anger, our sins, our burdens, we need the spiritual medicine of the Eucharist. In this beautiful woman of faith we are encouraged to never stop hungering for Christ in the Eucharist.
Offering our Best
We hear in our Gospel that Jesus loved his own in the world and he loved them to the end. Christ gave everything he had to those whom he loved. Christ’s love is free, total, faithful and fruitful. Christ’s love is freely given. Christ was not forced to offer his life for us, but he allowed it for our sake. Christ’s love was total. Christ offered his whole self for us in dying for us on the cross. Christ’s love is always faithful. There is nothing we can do that would make Christ abandon us. Christ’s suffering and death proves to us, that no matter how far away we go from God, Jesus will be there. There is no experience we can have that Christ himself hasn’t experienced. Christ’s love is fruitful. Out of his self-sacrificing love the Church was born. Christ indeed has loved us to the end.
And its this kind of love that Christ has called His priests to love the Church. In the letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul challenges married couples to love each other as Christ has loved the Church. And so, Priests, are called to love the Church as Christ has loved the Church. And here is the underlying, the foundational reason for priestly celibacy. Just as married couples are called to love each other with a love that is free, total, faithful and fruitful, so too are priests called to love the church freely, totally, faithfully, and fruitfully. The whole life of the priest is to be an offering of loving service for all of you – God’s holy people. Saint John Paul II explains this very well, “The Good Shepherd is one who lays down his life for his sheep” and the this “refer[s]” specifically “to the Sacrifice of the Cross, to the definitive act of Christ’s Priesthood”. Then he asks, “Do these words not tell us that [the vocation of the priest] is a singular solicitude for the salvation of our neighbor?” The priest’s vocation is to imitate Christ’s loving service completely.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a text from our parish secretary, saying that there was a woman who needed to be anointed and that it was urgent; usually means a person is nearing the end of their life. I wish I could tell you that when I received that text, I responded immediately and selflessly, Yes! But it was my day off and I was just about to leave the rectory and to meet a family that I am close with for dinner. But thankfully, with God’s grace, I responded, “I’ll go anoint this person, but I won’t look like a priest!” And so I went… and I received one of the greatest gifts of my priesthood that day. I arrived and the husband of the lady who is nearing the end of her life welcomed me graciously, and said “Father, thank you so much for coming.” Then I talked with him and his wife, discovered that they have been happily married for 63 years. Then I prayed with them and and anointed her. At this moment I was getting ready to leave and the lady grabbed my hand and said, “Father, you were a gift from God for me today.” I think Jesus knew I needed a little reminder that day about who I am called to lay my life down for. On this day, when I was tempted to live selfishly, this woman looked at me with the face of Christ and said, “you were a gift from God.”
A couple of weeks ago, I was called to anoint a person nearing the end of her life. This young lady was 99 years old. I made arrangements with the family to anoint her. When I arrived, I could tell things were a little tense. The woman was disoriented, didn’t really know what was going on, and seemed obviously frustrated. Her daughter, was as any daughter would be, saddened and worried. I introduced myself, and said to the person, “Well, hello! I’m Father Stephen. I have come to pray with you today, is that okay?” She looked at me and said, “Father, let me tell you. I hate it when people tell me what we are going to do, I’d rather we just did it.” I kind of chuckled, and said, well ok then. We’re going to pray right now. We prayed, I anointed her, reminder her of God’s love, grace and friendship with her. Then I gave her communion. I gave her the Eucharist. Not always possible for someone nearing the end of life.
Brothers and Sisters, the moment I gave her communion. Everything changed. Her face went from a frown to a smile. And she looked at me and she said, ‘Oh father. Father, thank you so much for coming. This was such a blessing. Father how old are you? You must be 70 years old!” Laughing, I said, “Nope, not seventy… actually I’m 31!” She responded, “oh you are a young priest” and her smile got bigger. “Father, thank you so much. This was such a blessing.” Transformation. Change. This
To The End – It matters!
Here’s the point: The Eucharist matters. And if all of us here are going to believe that the Eucharist matters, we have to respond to Jesus’ call to love as he loves, in other words, to the demands of Christian charity. If the world is going to believe that what we do at this table matters, then we have to hunger for Christ week after week. If the world is going to believe, that God’s love is proven by the very fact they he gave his very best through his son Jesus, then we too must give our very best back to God. If the world is going to believe that what happens at this altar matters, then we too must be transformed. As members of the Church we are a real sacrament of the Gospel in the world. The Eucharist truly does matter. And as it matters more for us, it transforms in changes us so, that others too may believe that they matter to Christ. The Eucharist matters. Christ particular love for you matters.
In Christ’s love and friendship,