22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
Installation of Fr. Andrew Aaron
St. Philip Neri, Linthicum; St. Clement I, Lansdowne
August 29, 2021
A Vision, Not a Job Description
It is a joy to return to the St. Philip Neri – St. Clement I pastorate and on this occasion to install Fr. Andy Aaron as your new pastor. Thank you for welcoming Father Andy so warmly, and thank you, Father Andy, for embracing the challenge of leading and serving a new pastorate community and a growing school.
On an occasion such as this, I could enumerate the duties of a pastor – but such a homily might go on even longer than usual. Even then I could never do justice to the “job description” of a pastor. Instead, I would propose that we seek in today’s Scripture readings a vision, or at least element of a vision, of what a pastor’s role is. Or to put it another way, let us seek in today’s Scripture an understanding of those transformations of minds and hearts – and communities of which a pastor is to be the instrument through God’s grace and commission.
Scriptural Matrix of Such a Vision
The Scriptural source of our meditation on the role of a pastor is the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees recounted in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees and Scribes accused Jesus and his disciples of breaking the prescriptions of the Jewish law regarding purifications – for they ate their bread without washing their hands. The Gospel makes clear that the Jewish law stipulated the need for the washing of hands, the cleansing of pots and kettles, and the like. These rules make perfect sense to us; they are, after all, matter of good hygiene. They also made sense to those who, in Jesus’ day, sought to observe God’s Law. Hygiene and dietary laws were one of the ways the people purified themselves, that is to say, set themselves apart in order to worship God worthily. The outer cleanliness demanded by the Law was mean to signal that inner purification of mind and heart that the Prophets demanded.
Yet, as so often happens, the real intent of the Law got lost along the way. For the Scribes and Pharisees, observance of the law was an end in itself. What began as a modest number of rules about washing and eating, turned into a comprehensive set of laws touching everyone and every aspect of life. Indeed, some Scribes and Pharisees stressed external cleanliness to such a degree that they neglected the original purpose for the rules, namely, cleanliness of heart.
So they accused Jesus and his disciples of breaking the law. But Jesus did not back down; instead raised the stakes and he did so by taking the Pharisees and Scribes to task for their failure to heed God’s Word. In effect, Jesus upended a system of ritual purity that had become an end in itself, proclaiming instead the primacy of an inward purification of heart and mind. After all, the human heart is the source and origin of evil deeds and attitudes. St. James in our 2nd reading pulls in the same direction when he admonishes us to set aside evil deeds and excesses and instead humbly welcome the Word of God.
Job #1: Transformation in Christ
All of which brings us to the heart of the Pastor’s role. Sometimes, we may imagine the Church to be a thicket of rules and regulations. We may regard bishops and pastors as “enforcers” of those rules and regulations. Some believe that the Church will improve only when its rules change – when they are either made more strict or more lax. Often, one’s views about what the Church should permit or forbid is shaped more by one’s political leanings than by Sacred Scripture and Tradition. It is also possible for pastors such as myself to concentrate on rules to such a degree that we forget that our primary task is to be the Lord’s humble instruments in bringing to fruition the transformation of persons and communities after the mind and heart of Christ himself.
The transformation we long far in our heart of hearts cannot occur unless we encounter Christ in a living way. As you know, an encounter is not a chance meeting or an on-again-off-relationship. Our encounter with the Lord is an intense moment of grace when, along the road of life we come to realize that Jesus is gazing intently at us, that the Lord is looking into our hearts, looking at us with us a love that attracts us, looking at us with a love that inspires, uproots, and changes us. Opening our the eyes of our soul to Jesus, we meet the God who became one of us, the Savior supremely meek and mild, pure of heart, all good and all loving. Even though he walked the earth more than 2,000 years ago, the challenge for us is to encounter the Lord – as individuals and as a community – in a real and living way – in our time, our place, and our circumstances.
Bringing About Encounters with Christ
The pastor’s role is to set the stage for that encounter and to bring it about in the lives of each of his parishioners and in the parish community as a whole, encounters with the living Christ, encounters that are powerful and transformative, encounters that free us up to become the persons and community God calls us to be. How does the pastor “set the stage” for such encounters and bring them about? The pastor does so by providing the Sacrament of Baptism by which we are interiorly cleansed of our all our sins; by being a good confessor and generously providing for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, by which we are cleansed of sins committed after Baptism; by proclaiming and preaching the Word of God in a such a convincing way that we will wish to embrace it humbly and in its fullness; by celebrating the Eucharist with such reverence, clarity, and beauty that just as the element of bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood, so too we the parishioners are transformed so much so that we can say with St. Paul, “It is not I who live but Christ who lives in me” … speaks in me and acts in me! Encountering Christ is Word and Sacrament should lead to parishes and families that are communities of faith, worship, and service – especially the poor and vulnerable.
But preaching the Word and celebrating the Sacraments is not enough. Those of us who claim the title pastor must do what the Pharisees failed to do, viz., bear witness in our own lives to the power of Christ’s love to transform us, to transform the whole of our persons and personalities. By our fidelity and joy, we are to bear witness to the life-giving truth that the transforming love which Christ wants to share with us corresponds perfectly with our interior desire for love and for fulfillment. The personal witness of a priest’s life transformed in an ongoing way by God’s grace is a powerful catalyst in helping people to open their hearts to the Lord, and in continuing to transform parish communities from grace to glory.
Fr. Andy you have served the Church long and well and it is with joy and confidence that I come to be with you and your people to mark the beginning of your new pastorate here at St. Philip Neri and St. Clement Pastorate. With your people, I pray that the Spirit will pour out his abundant gifts upon you and that your energetic labors will bear the good and holy fruit of the Gospel for the building up of this pastorate and for the glory of God. And may God bless you and keep you always in his love!