About three years ago, I was at our local library looking for a new book to read. As I glanced at the shelf that contained the newest books at the library, my eye was drawn to the spine of a paperback book with the title written in bold: Fatherless. The book, by Brian J. Gail, had a sticker on the bottom stating that it was Christian fiction, so I picked it up and read the description. To my joy, I discovered that the book was a Catholic bestseller and contained this in its description:
In these pages we meet flesh and blood characters-noble and flawed, driven and seeking each struggling to achieve the American Dream, but discovering instead a uniquely American nightmare. How each confronts the reality of ethical and moral dilemmas-while struggling to balance faith, family, and career-goes to the very heart of the Catholic experience in America in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
I was intrigued. As a Catholic in today’s society, it can be daunting to stand for things such as traditional marriage, human dignity from conception to natural death, anti-birth control and the like when all of society towers over you with its powerful influence stating that these things are perfectly acceptable and should be commended in some instances. I was hooked. The book was spectacular and followed three Catholic families who are faced with the list of issues that I listed earlier as well as divorce, issues with children, alcoholism, infidelity, and such. It also follows a fourth story, that of these families’ parish priest, a young priest who has struggles of his own in his task of leading his flock through these difficult times while balancing his own personal struggles and vices. I discovered that this was the first book in a trilogy, so for Christmas I received the three books as a set. Well, of course I was busy, so I have not gotten around to reading the last two until I recently picked up the second book, Motherless. And within the first ten chapters, I was already blown away by an explanation of the priesthood that I had never heard before.
The priest, Fr. John Sweeney, is speaking with two 20 year old men who are discerning entering seminary. They visit with him twice a month or so to talk about anything and everything about the faith. In this particular instance, they are talking about the unfortunate abandonment of almost any strong faith life in the contemporary American and whether they can do anything about it. Fr. Sweeney responds as such:
“We must shout our lungs hoarse and when our cries go unheeded, we must follow man into the abyss. And when he turns to us, and he will, we must be there at the ready, to point the way to Jesus Christ, who alone is his hope and his destiny.”
We as humans are a fallen race. Created in the image and likeness of God, created good, we turn our backs on this goodness, on our dignity, and fall into the abyss of slander, sloth, lust, greed, dishonesty, apathy, envy, hatred. We seek for immediate gratification. We long to be in complete power, to have total freedom from everyone and everything, and by seeking that freedom we enslave ourselves all the more to those things that tear us apart spiritually, emotionally, and socially. As a parent, a teacher, a friend, or a priest, we can shout all we want into the darkness for our brother or sister to turn around, to see the error in their ways, to turn back towards Love, but many times these are met with deaf ears that hear only the allurement of the world they live in now. We must not give in though. Though it may look as if the battle is lost, we must continue to follow the person into their downfall, continually hoping and praying for a conversion. Once they have hit the bottom, once they have nowhere to go, once they feel there is nobody to love them and that they could not possibly be loved anymore, they will look behind them and see you, standing there with loving eyes and arms pointing back to where everything started: Jesus Christ on the crucifix, displaying his perfect love for each and every one of us in every drop of blood that fell on the dusty ground- the grace and mercy of God quenching the thirst of the desert in our souls.
God is love, and as a priest and as any Christian we are called to follow those lost sheep who have wandered from the flock so that we can be there when they turn around and point them back to God. We are called to love, my brothers and sisters, and through this love we lead others to Divine Love.
Turn around, sinner.
Feed my flock, Peter.
“Shepherd me, O God
beyond my wants
beyond my fears
From death, into life!”