The seminary, where new priests are trained, is intended to be a grueling period of formation where each seminarian’s training is calculated and thoroughly evaluated. It is a 6 – 8 year basic training course which aims to take men from all walks of life and form them so they will be prepared to minister in a parish. There comes a moment for every man studying to be a priest that either solidifies this call to the priesthood or pushes him away. This moment came for me at the beginning of my 7th year in the seminary which is already a stressful year because at the end of the year comes the point of no return, deacon ordination, where a seminarians promises celibacy and obedience to the bishop for the rest of his life. Going into that year I knew it was going to be a tough year because in addition to my regular studies I had been elected president of the student body that did not always see eye to eye with the administration and I was in a race to finish my master’s thesis because my advisor was experiencing the effects of dementia, but knowing that the seminary personally tailors everyone’s formation I was confident that I would be assigned an easy pastoral assignment. But for some reason the seminary decided that rather than give me a little less stress they wanted to push me harder than I thought I could go by assigning me to teach in a high school and serve on Sundays at an inner city, predominantly African American parish.
Feeling trapped, knowing that God was calling me to be a priest, but not sure how I was going to make it through the year, I met with a priest mentor. I complained about how I grew up in West County and didn’t know how to minister in a parish with a drug house across the street, or how to pray in a Church with a very different liturgical style and how unfair it was that I had to be the first seminarian ever assigned to a situation like that. As I listened to myself speak I realized that I had been searching for comfort, but we were not made for comfort, we were made for greatness. I realized that growing up in a life of relative comfort, I had become obsessed with it. I had become like the rich man in today’s gospel who was so concerned about himself that I had created a chasm between myself and those God was calling me to serve. That year became a year of battling between my desire for complacency versus the call to self-sacrifice. Ultimately that battle brought my life back into perspective. As I worshiped and served with those great people in north city I quickly realized that for various reasons I had built up a false boundary between them and me when really no boundary existed. What I thought was going to be the most taxing part of my week turned out to be the most refreshing moment as I witnessed those parishioners, many of whom had nothing materially, show me what it means to be spiritually rich through the way they prayed at Mass and the way they lived out their faith.
Today’s readings remind us that what we do to the least of our brothers and sisters we do to God. Notice that the rich man is not condemned because he is wealthy, but rather because he did not show charity to Lazarus. While the rich man did not cause Lazarus to be poor he ignored him and was punished not for what he did, but for what he failed to do. The rich man was self-satisfied, smug, and complacent and being so self-absorbed, he was unconcerned about others, even unaware of the beggar at his front gate. Perhaps if the rich man had reached out and done something small to care for Lazarus, not only would Lazarus’ life changed, but perhaps the rich man would have been shaken from his self-centeredness and saved from eternal damnation.
Today’s parable demands us to show solidarity and not selfishness. So often we become so self-absorbed that we build false boundaries between ourselves and others, but today’s Gospel challenges us to step over the abyss and see others for who they are. While there is always the temptation to fall into complacency, today’s Gospel reminds us that our God is truly a demanding God because He is a lover and love is demanding. We must take up that good fight St. Paul talks about in today’s second reading, every day not only because our souls are at stake, but because we are put here on earth to give ourselves for others. In dying on the cross Christ offered Himself for everyone: those whom we love, and even those we don’t. So if we seek to share in the heavenly banquet, we must spend ourselves for all whom Christ died for on Calvary. Friends, I think the challenge of today’s gospel is simple. I think it challenges us to ask ourselves where do I fail to reach out to those in need because of my own protectiveness of my time, money or fears and it compels us to ask each day if we can do just one more thing for someone else because in giving we will receive far more in return.