In the winter semester of my first year of theological studies at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Worthington OH, I took a course titled “Introduction to Pastoral Ministry” with Msgr. David Sorohan. The year was 1989. I had just completed two years of teaching middle-school Math and Science in Tampa FL, and was having a difficult time re-adjusting to life as a graduate student. There seemed to be a never-ending pile of books and articles to read assigned by professors who had taught the same boring courses for decades. There were papers to write with mature and coherent thought in proper MLA or Chicago citation style. There were thoroughly uninspired lectures to sit through day after day, as I yearned for when I would be immersed in parish life once again, or I would stand on the more exciting side of the teacher’s desk. I was convinced I would learn so much more out in the real world. But I knew I had to serve my time getting an academic degree so people would take me seriously.
One of the first papers I had to write was of my experience of pastoral ministry up until that point. When I sat down to write it, I imagined pastoral ministry meant something completely different. I taught 7th grade Mathematics and 8th grade Science. I was responsible for supervising study hall, dining room, dormitory and recreation for the student residents. I was the default musician at all school liturgies. I coached JV soccer one year and was General Assistant (or Campus Disciplinarian) of the summer camp program for two years. At age 24, I was responsible for planning and running academic and extra-curricular programs, collaborating with parents, school administrators and other teachers, and supervising groups of students, but I was still not convinced I had done anything I could seriously consider “pastoral ministry.” Finally, it dawned on me there had not been a single moment I was not immersed in pastoral ministry. For two years I focused on living my faith in the service of others. Pastoral ministry is never some clearly identifiable program, with clearly defined parameters. Rather, it is the totality of the care of all those entrusted to me in my role within the community, after the example of Jesus Christ the Good Shepherd. Suddenly, I couldn’t put my pen down. It took that one paper for me to begin to understand my own unique contribution to the work in the Lord’s vineyard.
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t gone to work in the Lord’s vineyard so early. Maybe I should have goofed around more, traveled places, explored other careers. I shouldn’t have been in such a hurry to grow up and become a responsible and productive member of society. The parable of the laborers in the vineyard tells me God calls people to work in the vineyard all the time. Some will have been working long and hard when I get on board. Others will arrive on the scene after I’ve been at it for a couple of years. As far as God is concerned, it matters little whether I come early or late. The work will always be there, and the pay at the end of the day is the same. So when a few years ago four men were ordained priests for our diocese, I observed that two of them would reach retirement age before me. But I was thinking only in terms of human justice, that so much work rightly deserves proper compensation. Clearly God doesn’t think like me. His mercy and compassion are off the scale. His sense of justice and fairness will always be beyond my understanding. So ultimately, my only real concern should be how genuinely I place myself and my gifts at the service of God’s kingdom. Not much else really matters. I want to be able to declare with St. Paul, “Christ will be magnified in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.” And when the time arrives when my service is no longer necessary, I will be content to have done my part, and move on. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we say when we pray. God’s will is done whether or not we choose to cooperate. God doesn’t need our permission. Yet God invites us nonetheless to join in the work of renewing the face of the earth.
This past week, the Centennial 2032 Task Force tallied parishioner votes in response to the request for input on a direction for the parish for the next 20 years. I repeatedly asked us to pray for God’s guidance, and seriously consider what the Holy Spirit might be asking of us, not so much what we might want to do personally. I find it ironic that the parable of the laborers in the vineyard came up after the vote instead of before. But happily, we obtained 32% participation of registered eligible parishioners. I would have loved 100% participation, maybe 50%. But all we can really count on are those who freely chose to engage in the process.
So here goes. Option 1 received 13.4% of the vote. Option 2, 17.9%. Option 3, 30.1%, and Option 4, 38.6%. So Options 3 & 4 combined, 68.7%. It looks like the Holy Spirit is speaking loud and clear. The next step in the process will be to get the bishop’s input, and to work with the Office of Pastoral Planning on where we go from here. The road ahead will surely be long and challenging. I am excited and anxious, but I want to assure you we will go about the work with great care and focus. At least I know what to tell the bishop when he asks me if I want to stay. We will still need the help of many people – experts, professionals, volunteers, parishioners who are here now, as well as parishioners who will join us along the journey. We need to keep in mind that it is still God’s work in God’s own vineyard. And each of us will be called to play our part. Some will go willingly, others will ignore or refuse the invitation entirely. Some will arrive to work early, and spend a great deal of their energy and resources, some will join in at various points along the project, and some will sit on the sidelines ever eager to share their observations, comments and complaints. In the meantime, we continue building up our community of faith in a variety of ways. If we trust that God is the vine grower, who invites us to gather in the harvest from his vineyard, all our efforts will be directed at fulfilling his will. God will make use of our gifts and talents, our energy and resources, our courage and our faith. St. Paul leaves us good advice, “Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
When we put ourselves at the service of the kingdom of God, we are engaged in the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd. It is truly pastoral ministry – when we proclaim God’s Word, when we teach the faith to children and adults, when we visit the sick, and those in prison, when we raise our families, when we participate in the life of the local community, when we serve the poor, when we contribute to the work of the church. The Lord is the vine grower, we are called to labor in his vineyard. May we always welcome his voice, and be always eager to do his will.