11th Sunday of the Year Exodus 19:2–6a; Romans 5:6–11; Matthew 9:36–10:8
The workers are few The workers for the harvest are few because we are not doing all we can and should to address this problem.
When religious go to the missions to teach and preach, they are required to report back regularly to their religious superior.
This report deals not only with the progress of their work but also with their personal lives.
Here is an excerpt from a report written 400 years ago by Saint Francis Xavier in India to Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Europe. After reporting on the great poverty of the people, Francis writes:
Many out here fail to become Christians only because there is nobody prepared to undertake the task of teaching them. . . . I have often felt moved to go to the universities of Europe, especially the Sorbonne in Paris, shouting like a madman, saying to those who have more learning than goodwill, to employ it advantageously. . . .
If only, while they studied their humanities, they would also study the accounting that God will ask for the talent he has given them! Many might be moved. . . saying: “Lord, here I am. What would you have me do.” adapted from the Jesuit Supplement to the Divine Office (pages 98–99)
That letter echoes the words of Jesus in today’s gospel:
The harvest is large, but there are few workers to gather it in. Pray to the owner of the harvest that he will send out workers to gather in his harvest. Matthew 9:37–38
And what was true in the time of Jesus and true in the time of Saint Francis Xavier is doubly true today:
The harvest is large, but there are few workers to gather it in.
This raises a question: Why are there fewer workers today than previously to “gather in the harvest”?
But before we try to answer that question, maybe we should answer a prior question: What is the harvest Jesus speaks of, and who are the workers Jesus refers to?
First, what is the harvest Jesus speaks of?
It is the vast number of people not only in missionary countries but even in our own country who are searching for truth, who are searching for the meaning of life.
They are people like the high school graduate who was quoted in a national magazine as saying: There’s got to be more to life than money, TV, parties, and getting high.
And who are the workers Jesus talks about?
They are not just high school graduates, who in years past used to enter religious life in large numbers. They are also college graduates. As a matter of record, there are currently far more college graduates entering religious life than there are high school graduates, even though high school graduates outnumber college graduates by far.
And, finally, they are also all of us here. Every person here can do something to “gather in the harvest.”
That brings us back to our original question: Why are there fewer workers today than previously to “gather in the harvest”?
Consider just three reasons.
First, it’s because we aren’t doing what Jesus told us to do when he said, Pray to the owner of the harvest that he will send out workers to gather in his harvest.
Jesus has placed into our hands everything we need to “gather in the harvest.” But we aren’t using the most basic resource he gave us: prayer.
For example, how many of us here pray regularly to God, asking him to touch the hearts of young people to take seriously a vocation to the sisterhood, brotherhood, or priesthood?
How many of us here pray regularly to God, asking him to touch the hearts of married people to take seriously some kind of a commitment to “gather in the harvest,” be it prayer or financial aid or whatever?
Let’s be more specific. When was the last time we prayed to “the owner of the harvest” to “send workers to gather in his harvest”?
But there is yet a second reason why there are fewer workers today than previously to “gather in the harvest.”
And that reason has to do with families. Families are no longer seedbeds for vocations to the religious life.
Again, let’s be specific.
When was the last time we spoke to our own children about ministry as a possible life choice for them?
Finally, there is a third reason. And it has to do with each one of us, personally.
Let’s think of it this way.
If we are a young person, have we ever opened ourselves to the possibility of committing our lives to God as a religious?
Or are we one of those of whom Saint Francis says:
If only, while they studied their humanities, they would also study the accounting that God will ask for the talent he has given them!
Or if we are an older person, have we ever asked ourselves seriously what we might do to “gather in the harvest”?
Have we ever thought of doing something directly to help the owner of the harvest “gather in the harvest” be it prayer, financial help, or actual personal involvement?
Today’s gospel sets before each of us a challenge. How will we face it?
An absolute minimal first step would seem to be for families to add a prayer for vocations to their regular meal and evening prayers. This would also serve as a gentle reminder to our children that they might consider a vocation to religious life.
Likewise, those outside a family structure might add a prayer to their daily prayers for the same intention.
Let’s close by again listening to these excerpts from Saint Francis Xavier’s letter to Saint Ignatius of Loyola:
I have often felt moved to go to the universities of Europe. . . shouting like a madman, saying to those who have more learning than goodwill, to employ it advantageously. . . .
If only, while they studied their humanities, they would also study the accounting that God will ask for the talent he has given them! Many might be moved . . . saying: “Lord, here I am. What would you have me do.”
Series II 11th Sunday of the Year Exodus 19:2–6a; Romans 5:6–11; Matthew 9:36–10:8
Strange meeting We have been commissioned by Jesus to continue the work begun by the twelve Apostles.
At eight o’clock on the night of November 12, 1975, a strange meeting took place in Washington, D.C. Inside a former embassy building, twelve prisoners two women and ten men, six black and six white sat around a table.
They had been secretly driven to this location in pairs, in unmarked cars, from six different federal prisons.
At the head of the table, preparing to open the meeting, was a man dressed in a lumberman’s jacket and baggy brown pants. His manner, physique, and voice were as rugged and tough as his dress.
It was Harold Hughes, former truck driver, alcoholic, and combat soldier, who underwent a conversion to Jesus Christ and went on to become governor of Iowa and a United States senator.
At his side was Charles Colson, a former White House aide to the president. He had recently been released from prison for his role in the Watergate affair that led to the resignation of President Nixon.
There was no security in or around the building. Only a few blocks away every imaginable temptation could be found: bars, pool halls, massage parlors.
As the clock struck eight, Hughes bowed his head and opened the meeting with a prayer. Then he addressed the twelve prisoners in these words:
You men and women are here not to play or to have a rest. You are here to learn what it means to be disciples who deny everything else in the world for the sake of Jesus Christ. If you have any other thoughts in your minds, get rid of them. . . .
You men and women are here representing three hundred thousand other prisoners throughout the country, most of whom have no hope. You are trustees for them. If this experiment works, I can promise you that life will get better for all others behind bars. If you fail, their hopelessness will continue. Charles Colson, Life Sentence
These male and female prisoners had been handpicked to be part of a dream that Charles Colson had while he himself was serving time in Maxwell Prison, Alabama.
For the next two weeks, they would share their faith, study Scripture, and pray together.
Only a select group of people knew about the unusual experiment, and some of them had serious misgivings concerning its outcome.
At the end of the first week a highly intense week Hughes and Colson sensed that a break was in order.
They announced Saturday night that after church on Sunday, the prisoners would be free to do whatever they wanted: go sightseeing, sleep, or work out in a gym.
The prisoners huddled and then announced their decision: they would visit the county prison in Washington and bear witness to their faith in Jesus.
This remarkable act was typical of the incredible spirit that prevailed from start to finish throughout the two-week meeting.
Whatever became of that group of prisoners and the experiment involving them?
To make a long story short, it became the mustard seed out of which grew the remarkable Prison Fellowship program.
In the United States alone, this program touches the lives of 25,000 prisoners in over 500 prisons.
Besides conducting weekly Bible and prayer meetings, the program
• provides material and spiritual support to families whose breadwinners are in jail, • prepares spouses for the difficult life that often ensues after a prisoner is released, and
• provides spiritual support to prisoners during the critical weeks, months, and even years that follow their release.
The meeting of those twelve prisoners on the night of November 12, 1975, in a former embassy building bears a striking resemblance to today’s gospel, which tells of another meeting of twelve people who had been converted to Jesus Christ and were commissioned to go forth to change the world in which they lived.
They too went through a rigorous training program. They too held in their hands the hope of the future.
Many people of their time had serious misgivings about their ability to carry out the dream of their leader. Whatever became of that meeting of the twelve Apostles that day in Galilee?
We all know.
It became the original mustard seed out of which grew the movement that we now know as Christianity.
It now spans the globe and touches the life of every person on earth.
This raises a practical question.
What message do the story of the twelve prisoners and the story of the twelve Apostles hold for us in this church today? It is the same message that Harold Hughes gave to the prisoners gathered around the table in Washington. It is the same message that Jesus gave to the Apostles gathered around him in Galilee.
“The harvest is large, but there are few workers to gather it in. . . . You have received without paying, so give without being paid.”
In other words, Jesus is saying to us what he said to his disciples. He is telling us to go out and to share our own gift of faith with our brothers and sisters.
He is saying to us something similar to what Harold Hughes said to the twelve prisoners seated around the table in Washington, D.C., on the night on November 12, 1975:
You men and women are here representing millions of people on earth, most of whom have no hope. You are trustees for them. If you succeed in bringing the faith of Jesus to them, I promise you that life will get better for them. If you fail, their hopelessness will continue. (paraphrased)
Series III 11th Sunday of the Year Exodus 19:2–6a; Romans 5:6–11; Matthew 9:36–10:8
Priestly Vocations Cause for joy and gratitude.
These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (called Peter) and his brother John . . . Matthew 10:2
Father John Eagen taught at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. He died young in his early 50s.
A legacy he left behind was a spiritual journal. He began it by describing the moment he felt the call of Jesus, much as the twelve apostles did in today’s Gospel. It took place on a retreat. He writes:
On the retreat, I decided to do something I’d been putting off. I went to confession. To my surprise, the priest said nothing about my sins. He spoke only of God’s love for me.
I left the chapel . . . and walked out into the beauty of the afternoon. . . . Joy began to well up and run in my heart, different from anything I’d ever experienced . . . I don’t think I’d ever been happier in my life. . . .
At length I found myself out on a golf course. I remember lying down out of sheer joy on a bunker with my eyes to the blue sky and my arms wide open to the Lord. . . . How long I lay there, I don’t remember. All I remember is that I felt enormously close to God. A Traveller Toward the Dawn
Later in his journal Father Eagen comments on that memorable moment. He writes: There’s a marvelous line in Alan Paton’s book, Cry, the Beloved Country.
It’s about someone who tries to thank an old black preacher for his kindness, saying, “You are a good man.”
The old man replies, “No. I’m just a weak, sinful man, but the Lord has laid his hands on me, and that is all.”
John Eagen comments, saying:
That is exactly the way it was with me also on that high school retreat, God laid his hand on me and that is all. I thank God for his gift. I’ll never understand it. (slightly adapted)
In another part of his journal, John describes a moment of joy while celebrating Mass. He writes:
At the Our Father, everyone was holding hands and singing. And, suddenly, the beauty of it all struck me, and I couldn’t speak the words of the Our Father. . . .
[Then, at Communion time,] people come up . . . grandmas and grandpas with canes . . . mothers and fathers holding their children, suddenly in the midst of it all a wave of awe and gladness comes over me. . . . For a few moments I choke and can’t say the simplest words: “The Body of Christ.”
Icould go on and on, but I think you can see where he’s going.
Today, there is much concern about the future of the Church: about vocations and dissatisfaction on the part of many with things within the Church.
Let us take a closer look at each of those concerns.We begin with dissatisfaction with things within the Church today.
Novelist Flannery O’Connor lived in rural Georgia in the 1960s. At that time, the nation was undergoing a civil rights upheaval, and the Church was undergoing a Vatican II upheaval.
Flannery O’Connor corresponded with an amazing number of people about both of these problems.
Her letters were published after her death, just as Father Eagen’s journal was published after his death. Allow me to quote from one letter that she writes to a dissatisfied Catholic:
All your dissatisfaction with the Church seems to me to come from an incomplete understanding of sin. . . . Christ never said that the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way, but that it would not teach error.
This does not mean that each and every priest won’t teach error but that the whole Church speaking through the Pope will not teach error in matters of faith. The Church is founded on Peter who denied Christ three times and couldn’t walk on water himself. You are expecting his successors to walk on water. Quoted in Pilgrim Souls, Amy Mandelker & Elizbeth Powers, editors
This advice to someone dissatisfied with Church affairs is well put. It needs to be repeated again and again. And it brings us to the second point: vocations to the priesthood in the Church.
Recently, the Society of Jesus published a fascinating brochure. It contained 43 photos of men who entered the order during the previous year. Each photo was accompanied by a brief biography. Let me share three with you.
Incidentally, if you think the three I chose are exceptional, let me assure you they are not exceptional, but typical. I will change the first names. The first biography reads:
Jim, 23, has a bachelor’s in chemistry from Saint Joseph’s University and a master’s in theological studies from Duke Divinity school. He has done retreat planning, hospital eucharistic ministry, and summer Bible school for children. He plays trombone and piano and has a particular fondness for Ireland. Ken, 27, graduated from Saint Louis University High and has a bachelor’s degree in foreign service from Georgetown and a second bachelor’s in sacred theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He studied in Vienna and worked in public relations at the Frankfurt stock exchange and in sales for a furniture company in the Czech Republic.
Finally, Ted, 25, has a B.A. in history from the College of Charleston; as a child he attended schools in Manila, Seoul, Korea, and Bangkok. He worked as a swimming instructor at the Citadel, where he did graduate work. He taught history at the American school of Bilbao, Spain, and English to Vietnamese refuges in the Philippines.
The point is this. If we’re concerned about the Church, maybe we should read some of Flannery O’Connor’s letters. They have a realism and a deep faith about them that we could benefit from.
And if we think God is not supplying his Church with remarkable vocations, maybe we should pick up a copy of the brochure from which I read. It makes it crystal clear that Jesus is choosing some talented young men to lead the Church in this, the new millennium.
Rather than be concerned, we should be excited and grateful. We should rejoice that the Holy Spirit is mightily at work in the Church in the lives of some pretty terrific young people.