He went around to the villages in the vicinity teaching.
He summoned the Twelve* and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclean spirits.
[After some time] The apostles* gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat.So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them.When he disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
-Mark 6b,7; 30-34
[The Feeding of the Five Thousand then takes place]
I know it’s been several weeks since I’ve posted an entry to the blog. My apologies to those who kept checking if there was anything new and were disappointed. Following the advice of Jesus to The Twelve, I went off to a “deserted place” for a little rest and relaxation after spending my first year in Trenton as the pastor of St. Mary Parish. It wasn’t really deserted, but it was a desert region, Palm Springs, California. The small desert city has become a favorite of mine to get away to relax in and I do have a friend who lives there to spend time with while in town. The vacation was a nice break, but unfortunately on the trip back I must have caught a cold on the plane and after that cleared up my allergies have been in high gear, so I haven’t felt much like writing for the blog, just managing to get things done that need to be done in the parish.
There was something that happened on the trip home, though, that gave me the idea for this blog entry that I shared with the parish in my first weekend back at the pulpit preaching. Do we, as disciples, get to take a vacation from proclaiming the Good News. We may get to rest, but there are always people waiting to hear of God’s love in word and action. Note in the passage from the Gospel of Mark quoted above, the disciples have been doing “ministry” and Jesus recommends a vacation to recharge the emotional and spiritual batteries so to speak and to do some reflection on how God has been at work in their life. Yet, when they try to get away, the folks follow them and their needs to be feed through word and deed present themselves, not tomorrow when the disciples are scheduled to get back from rest, but now, in the present moment.
Throughout my vacation, when ever I would meet someone, the question would always come up, “What do you do for work?” What am I going to say, “Oh, I work as local branch manager of a multi-national organization that seeks to further development of human potential” in order to avoid “ministry” or “work” and stay “on vacation?” In a way that description is true, but, I answer without trying to hide the fact and truthfully tell the new acquaintance I am a priest and pastor of a Catholic Church. Most of the time that gets a response like “Really? That’s interesting.” Sometimes that’s followed by “I’ve got a question” or “I’m spiritual but don’t believe in that organized religion stuff” or a simple “That’s cool.” But, the door is opened and conversation at some point heads in the direction of talking about faith or personal belief or how the person left the church after growing up Catholic or the like. While I may want down time, the “crowd” of the Gospel always seems to follow and my “heart is moved with [concern] for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” The moment becomes a moment of evangelization and I can not refuse the Holy Spirit which I believe is probably using me in that one unique opportunity that the person may never have, again, to proclaim the Good News.
So, I’m on my way home after 8 days of being in my favorite deserted place on a two-hour lay over in the airport in Phoenix, AZ. Being prepared, I had brought along a liturgical document to re-read and prepare a presentation I was to give at a workshop two days after I returned home. My plan was to read it and work on the talk on my trip home, sort of the ease back into “ministry-work” mode. But, it’s also my custom to enjoy a drink on the way home from vacation so I purchased an “adult beverage” at a bar on the concourse and sat at a cocktail table to study and write my presentation.
I had said hello to two women in line in front of me when I’d ordered the drink. There were not many tables and these women sat at a table directly behind me to enjoy their drinks. Now, I really don’t purposely eavesdrop on other people’s conversations, but my hearing is pretty good and they weren’t exactly talking in hushed whispers. I sort of picked up that they were talking about belief and doubt, but tried to ignore their private conversation.
Then I heard one say something like “Well, I don’t know if you really can believe all you read in that book (the Bible). After all, it was written by humans and it contradicts itself. Some it is just too hard to believe actually happened. I was raised a Catholic but I left the church. Especially with all those priests abusing children.” Her companion agreed that faith and belief in God is difficult to maintain, yet she was “spiritual.” It’s a conversation I’ve heard and been drawn into many times through casual acquaintances and chance meetings when socializing; “for they are like sheep without a shepherd.”
A prayer rises up in my head. “NOT NOW Holy Spirit! I’m still on vacation! I have no business interjecting myself in their private conversation! Leave me alone! I’ve got a talk to prepare!” The Holy Spirit doesn’t take no for an answer. I’ve learned that over the years. The Spirit will have it’s way and gnaw at your gut until you respond.
As I finish my drink and put my papers away I decide I have to say something. Stoping by the ladies table as I leave to go find dinner and my gate I say hello and explain that I wasn’t trying to listen in to their conversation but overheard it anyway and felt compelled to offer an opinion. “You see, I’m a Catholic priest, albeit out of ‘uniform’ (I was in shorts and polo shirt) and I understand how difficult it can be to have faith and believe. I’ve been there, myself. But sometimes you just have to take a risk, trust it is true, and live with the doubt for a while, while you continue to explore what you believe. God is leading you to him so don’t give up on him. I hope you remain open to discovering what God’s revealing to you despite a very human church making it difficult to trust. May you get home safely, ladies.”
Now, it wasn’t the most eloquent proclamation of the Gospel. And, selfishly, I didn’t want to spend time in discussion. I just hope my little “surprise” revelation might get the women to think a bit, something on the order of “Wasn’t that interesting? Was it a sign from God? Did God have a message for us God wanted us to hear by the coincidence of a priest happening overhearing us at the next table?” Or maybe they just shrugged it off and said “What an odd man!” But, like Jeremiah and Jonah who tried to not preach, the Word burned in my heart and on my lips and would not be silenced. At every Mass before proclaiming the Gospel, don’t I pray “May your words be in my heart and my lips that I might worthily proclaim your holy Gospel”? (Well in the older translation, I did.)
No, disciples, be they priest or laity, can never take a vacation from proclaiming the Word of God. It’s our baptismal vocation, even on vacation.