You Cannot Give What You Do Not Have

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Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord

A few weeks after being ordained a priest some 20 years ago, I was sent to teach at an all boys Catholic high school in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. So I went to live with the religious community of priests and brothers who staffed the school. One Saturday morning I was reading the newspaper in the common room when the doorbell rang. There was a man asking to talk to a priest for confession. My heart started to race. I was well aware that I was now a validly ordained Roman Catholic priest who was more than qualified to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s forgiveness. But instead, I asked him to wait at the door while I looked for someone more qualified. By then I had heard fewer confessions than I had thumbs on one hand. And despite all my years in priestly formation, I was convinced I was not up to the task, not yet anyway. When I found another priest, I apologized for asking him to cover for me. He smiled gently. “I understand,” he said. “I was there once. You’ll do fine with the next one.”

For a number of years after that, I still seriously lacked confidence in my own ability and competence to step into the role I had been preparing for most of my life. I was plagued with self-doubt, and often wondered when I would believe in myself enough to be the priest I knew I was. I hope you all know that we aren’t all born experts. There are people who know exactly what they are all about and what they are supposed to do from day one. I was not one of them.

But as I settled into parish ministry over the years, I have come to know people who shared with me some of their expectations, and somehow forced me to respond. I got to know young couples preparing for marriage, and young parents raising children and preparing them for sacraments. I spoke with teenagers struggling with issues of faith and identity and self-worth. I visited with people in different stages of suffering and illness, in the hospital and in their own homes. I sat with spouses and families grieving the loss of a loved one. I’ve been yelled at by people angry at God, angry at the church, angry at the world. And I listened to stories of rejection, and alienation, and neglect. So over the years my priesthood has been shaped in large part by the struggles and needs of those I was sent to serve. And I am most grateful for people along my journey who have shown me how to be a better pastor. I wasn’t always willing to learn. I wasn’t always receptive. And although my professors and teachers at school gave me the knowledge I needed, I learned to be a pastor on the job with the help of all the lovely people of God.

Confidence and self-assurance do not come in a box fully assembled. We grow into them gradually, in fits and starts. You who are parents may have turned to your own parents in those early years with a new baby. You turned to siblings and friends who shared your struggles with raising a family, with living with teenagers, with helping them stand on their own feet, and find their place in the world. And these experiences shaped you to become the parents you have become.

On this Mother’s Day weekend, many moms will hear their adult children say “Thank you.” But no mom (or dad) is ever adequately prepared for the challenges of parenthood. Each of you will approach the experience with some measure of joyful anticipation and some measure of dread and fear.

So we can understand that the community of Jesus’ disciples was not yet fully formed when Jesus ascended to the Father. They may have received all the knowledge they needed to live in the world as Christians, but they had a lot of growing up yet to do. Jesus instructed them to “stay in the city until [they] were clothed with power from on high.” That promised gift of the Holy Spirit would come down upon those gathered on Pentecost, but it would take many more years for that little band of disciples to grow into their role as true bearers of the Gospel and authentic witnesses of the resurrection.

Throughout history we can see the growth of the Christian community. Even in our own lifetime, we can point to occasions that have forced us (and I mean the Church) to rethink how we live our faith, seriously addressing the needs we face, while striving to remain faithful to the teachings and the way of Jesus Christ. It is slow progress, yes, but it is consistent with our human experience of growing up.

Similarly, although we are born into loving and caring families, we have still to learn from others how to love and care for one another. Being raised in a Christian and Catholic family is no guarantee we will turn out to be Christian and Catholic. If parents purposely set out to raise motivated, joyful, authentic Christian children, they might actually end up with motivated, joyful, authentic Christian adults. But somebody has first to teach them what their faith means, so they in turn might want to learn. But will they want to learn what it means if they find it lifeless and unattractive? Would you want for yourselves a lifeless and unattractive faith? So we can’t totally blame them for leaving if we haven’t given them our best reasons to stay. True, we can’t decide for them what they eventually choose to be. But we can at least show them why we believe, with a witness that is authentic and meaningful and convincing. If we are to be the best teachers of our Catholic faith, we have to know our material, we have to know the person of Jesus Christ, so our young people will learn the best from the best. If we want our young people to know and love the values of our Catholic faith, it is essential we know and love those same values ourselves first.

When I sat down with our teenagers preparing for Confirmation, I often sensed this uncertainty, this lack of confidence in taking this simple step forward. All it really involves is a willingness to participate in their own growing up in the faith. But how can they know how to do that if the Catholic adults in their lives refuse, or at best have no clue what it means, to grow in the faith? How can we give them what we do not have? Because if we have something exciting and beautiful and meaningful to give them, it will show.

Growing up takes time and a great deal of patience. We know that as human beings, as children and teenagers and adults, as parents and pastors and members of the Christian community. And we’re all in this together. We impart our love for our Christian faith, its beauty and mystery, primarily in the way we live it. So we need to do it right if our children are to see how it is done right. And if we pass it on with a joyful conviction and a sincere meaningful witness, they will have that much to pass on to those who come after them. You cannot give what you do not have.

Grandma Annie and Great Grandkids

Rolo B. Castillo © 2013