What Now? There’s a Plan?
I was ordained to the priesthood on Sunday, 31 May 1992, in Nanuet NY. Roughly, it’s been 25 years. To be exact, I have been a priest 24 years, 11 months, 3 weeks, 5 days. Most days, it doesn’t feel anything like 25 years. But I still get a little self-conscious when I’m up here, still slightly terrified out of my wits. Thank you. I fake it well. And you would think I knew what I was doing. It’s like crossing Niagara Falls unicycling on a tightrope, while balancing a box of ferrets and a dozen eggs, and singing the tenor part of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. And that’s just what it’s like on a normal Sunday. Okay, I’m exaggerating. I’m still working on the unicycle. The one I have at home has had a flat for the last 6 years. One of these days. You never know.
When milestone anniversaries come around, we generally like to make a big deal, because it truly is a big deal. But you think you’ve just been doing your job to the best of your ability, staying alive, and keeping sane. Then one day, you wake up, and it’s been 25 years. Did you plan it that way? Now I can only speak for myself. If by planning you mean mapping out a rough path from point A to point B, taking into account priorities, available resources, expense estimates in personnel, time and money, setting measurable markers along the way, evaluating progress in a timely fashion, and making the necessary course corrections to achieve the stated goals, then no. I know there are people out there who do that kind of careful and meticulous planning. I can only say, that has not been my experience. I remember once asking my religious superior who along with his council were required to conduct annual progress reports on the students of Theology. I was secretly hoping for a sign from God, some prophetic declaration that I was fulfilling God’s plan and doing God’s will. Instead the best response I got was, “There are no significant objections to your advancing to the next step.” That was no ringing endorsement. But I took it as a subtle hint that I was perhaps headed in the right direction, or at least not in a wrong one.
Ultimately, few of us ever get God’s clear and unarguable stamp of approval on our chosen path or career choice. People like Moses and Jeremiah and John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary and St. Paul come to mind. The rest of us have to content ourselves with reading the tea leaves and the smoke signals. We imagine God would lead us where he wants us to go. We know God desires our happiness, as our own parents did as well, but neither they nor God would spell it out for us. “Go where your heart takes you,” we are told. And if we weren’t happy ourselves, we would take it as a sign that God was calling us elsewhere. Because if God were not happy with our choice, he would let us know, or so we think.
When Jesus, upon completion of his earthly ministry, gathered his disciples on a mountaintop to let them know he was returning to the Father, he promised to send them the Holy Spirit, and gave them a rough plan for their lives and ministry. “Go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them … and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” It seems short on detail, but it was something they could work with. Jesus never intended to micromanage their lives. He did share with them the Father’s plan, and the Holy Spirit would accompany them, but the rest would truly be up to them. The Acts of the Apostles gives further detail, though not much more in terms of how God’s plan would unfold. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world.” In both sets of instructions, Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit’s role. And the disciples were to heed the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit to fulfill the Father’s plan.
It has been 2000 years since Jesus gave instructions to his apostles, and we have taken up that important task in their place. We might have a vague idea from day to day what Jesus calls us to do, but it is up to us to fill in the specifics. We listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice, we follow his lead, and we place ourselves at the service of God’s plan. It may be challenging sometimes, but difficulty is not, in and of itself, a sign of God’s disapproval. We map out a rough path from point A to point B; we take into account priorities, available resources, expense estimates in personnel, time, and money; we set measurable markers along the way; we evaluate our progress in a timely fashion; and we make the necessary course corrections to achieve the stated goals. And when we have to step back so others may take our place, we want to make sure to pass on to them what we know and believe of God’s plan that we are called to fulfill. They in turn must listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice and follow his lead. And though one generation might differ from the next as to the details of how God’s plan might unfold, though one pastor to the next might differ, one bishop to the next, or one pope to the next, we are still all called to listen for the same Holy Spirit’s voice and to follow the same Spirit’s lead. It is God’s plan we set out to fulfill, not our own. We might only see a small part of the plan, which we do our best to understand and bring to fulfillment. But we can be certain that God sees the whole picture, and all the details. And God will not allow us to go too far afield. We can always be confident God’s will is done.
I can assure you I had few details about God’s plan when I first started out 25 years ago. It was stressful and challenging teaching Algebra in an all-boys Catholic high school, and I thought I would be teaching for the rest of my life. I was wrong. Then I served as pastor for a few small parishes, and had a short stint as priest on a state university campus. I could have stayed longer, but I went where I was sent, and that would be to Waynesboro, which was nowhere in the plan as far as I knew. Building a new church was nowhere in the plan as far as I knew. Staying 11 years in one place was nowhere in the plan as far as I knew. The plan according to the gospel is about making disciples, baptizing, teaching … and being witnesses of Jesus to the ends of the earth. I can only speak for myself. After 25 years, I still get a little self-conscious when I’m up here, still slightly terrified out of my wits. It’s not as terrifying as crossing Niagara Falls unicycling on a tightrope, while balancing a box of ferrets and a dozen eggs, and singing the tenor part of the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah.
But it’s been an amazing journey so far, walking with you all, teaching, baptizing, proclaiming God’s word. 25 years is really but a blip. The Holy Spirit speaks and we follow his lead. And God’s plan is fulfilled, preferably with our participation, our joy, our enthusiasm. We don’t always need to know how it comes together. We just need to trust God has a plan, and stick the landing.
Rolo B Castillo © 2017