When the first Oklahoma missionaries went to Guatemala in 1963, they took a boat to an isolated place on Lake Atitlán where they found thousands of people who had been abandoned for generations and their hearts were moved with pity for them.
They developed programs designed to address their most obvious material needs in the areas of health care and education, as well as their spiritual needs through catechesis and in the liturgy. They translated the prayers and readings of the Mass into Tz’utujil so that people could better understand truths about God, about their faith and about what this meant for them personally. But their needs were simply overwhelming. So many oppressed, desperately destitute people, and only a handful of missionaries.
These missionaries worked very hard, but when faced with a time of crisis, most were unable to sustain this heroic effort to do good, whether that crisis was in their own personal life or in that of the community. And they all eventually abandoned the effort and went home. Some even abandoned the priesthood except Blessed Stanley Rother, who didn't rely on his own strength alone. He drew his strength from Jesus and especially from the Eucharist. It wasn't all on him.
In today's Gospel Jesus takes a boat to an isolated place on a different lake, where he too finds thousands of people who were abandoned spiritually and materially, and his heart was moved with pity for them. He cured the sick and taught them about the Kingdom of God in language that they could understand, and what this meant for them personally. But there were so many of them and their needs were simply overwhelming. Most obvious in the short term was the fact that they hadn't eaten and there was no way they could see to meet that need. So, when faced with this crisis, they tried to talk Jesus into abandoning the rest of what he had planned for the day in order to send the people to the neighboring villages where they could buy food. And here Jesus steps in to provide for them in a way that they could never have imagined.In this way he teaches them two things.
First of all, that they can rely on God's providence. He can provide a way when there are no obvious human solutions. And second, by multiplying the loaves, he prefigures the Eucharist which will be the greatest source of continuing spiritual nourishment for his followers for all ages to come. Later we will learn that the Eucharist is far more than mere physical nourishment because it will in fact be Jesus' very body and blood.
Over the course of the last 13 years, ever since I came here to be your bishop, many of our priests have been to Santiago Atitlán. I hope every one of you will be able to go there on pilgrimage one day. Anyone who has been there can see that Jesus continues to work miracles at this isolated place on the shore of that lake. There is much still yet to do there, as there is in Arkansas, for that matter. But like some of those original Oklahoma missionaries, if we rely only on our own human ingenuity and merely human solutions, we are doomed to frustration and even burn out. But if like Father Rother we put our trust in God's providence, we will flourish, just as that parish is right now.
Today, Aug. 2 is not only my 41st anniversary of ordination to the priesthood, it is also the 40th anniversary of Blessed Stanley Rother’s funeral in Oklahoma City. His funeral was on my first anniversary and my life and ministry havebeen inspired by his courageous witness ever since. When I was ordained I was swimming against the current. As in Arkansas, many priests were in crisis following Vatican II and Oklahoma eventually lost about a thirdof its priests.
There was much talk of gloom and doom and speculation that by my 25th anniversary there would be only a handful of priests still left in active ministry. But those of us who remained trusted in God's providence and look at the results.
God sent us priests from Africa and India and Latin America — no one expected this 40 years ago. And now vocations from within Arkansas are back on track: God continues to call, he has called you and you have responded. And like me, you too are swimming against the current. I swam against the current of a flood of priests leaving the ministry. The Church was in crisis and people thought I was crazy to get on board what they thought was a sinking ship. What they didn’t know was that Jesus was at the helm. You are swimming against the current of an increasingly secular world and many people really don’t understand your embrace of a vocation rooted in truths that only a person of faith can understand. You truly are counter-cultural and I am proud of you and inspired by you. And of course we are all inspired by the fidelity of Blessed Stanley Rother, who was buried 40 years ago today, having given his life for the flock entrusted to his care.
None of us knows what the future will hold. When I was ordained the clergy sexual abuse crisis was not even on the horizon and safe-environment protocols were unheard of. The concept of same-sex marriage was unthinkable, as were other LGBTQ issues; most gay people were firmly in the closet. For us the big issues were welcoming immigrants and opposition to abortion, which remain a major focus of the Church even today, and other things, like inclusive language and contemporary music at Mass.
As for you, who knows what the world will look like 40 years from now, but I can tell you this: there will be crises. Every age has its crises. Rely on yourself alone and you won't make it. But draw your strength from a living relationship with Jesus, nourished especially by the Eucharist, you will flourish. And through you, many others will flourish as well. One day it will be you — in persona Christi — who will look up to heaven, say the blessing, break the loaves and give them to the crowds so abundantly that all will be satisfied, with even 12 wicker baskets to spare. Except in your case it will not be a miracle of multiplication as in today's Gospel, but rather a miracle of transubstantiation into the very body and blood, soul and divinity of Jesus himself. The food of eternal life and your source of strength for everything that lies ahead.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor delivered this homily Aug. 2 during the seminarian retreat.
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