15th Sunday in Ordinary time

We now have two new priests in the diocese. We believe that these men have been chosen by God. Their personal discernment was carefully examined and tested by the Church authorities over a number of years during their training and was finally confirmed by the very act of their Priestly Ordination just a couple of weeks ago. It certainly represents a personal achievement for each one of them. More importantly, they are now equipped with the powers required to carry out the mission that is much greater than them and which – as they will learn very quickly – seems to be Mission Impossible. That mission is described in today’s gospel: ‘They set off to preach repentance; and they cast out many devils and anointed many sick people with oil and cured them.’

This sentence is constructed in a strange way; I’d like to call it ‘the bracket’. The opening part describes the Apostles’ action in response to Jesus’ commission (‘they set off to preach repentance’), while the second or closing part summarizes the effectiveness of their actions. The Apostles’ entire ministry is compacted into one brief sentence. It unintentionally gives the impression that the Apostles’ mission was a running streak of success. If this is taken at face value, this can be very dispiriting to everyone who has ever worked in religious ministry. As in all ways of life and work, priests have to face adversities, challenges and anxieties, either of their own making or of those they serve. Just to make it clear: I’m very, very far from complaining or feeling sorry for myself or feeling pity for the hard lives of other priests. It’s not that hard, and I daresay that most of you lead harder lives than I do.

Let’s go back to the gospel. It reports that ‘Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out […] giving them authority over the unclean spirits.’ The Apostles are to go out, but not in their own name; their message isn’t supported by their own gravitas or authority. They are to go out in the name of Jesus and whatever authority they have is granted to them entirely and wholly by Jesus. Their mission is to serve as best as they can, both for the sake of Jesus and also for the sake of those they are to meet. That’s the meaning of the instructions Jesus gives them: ‘take nothing for the journey.’ From my own experience and that of many of my colleagues, I can say that it’s easy to lose sight of the objective of the mission, and that it’s easy to rely overmuch on our human powers. Both situations can be dangerous to single men without wives to keep them right! I’d add that actually the main challenges in my ministry are: (1) staying focused on the purpose of my ministry, and (2) remembering that it’s ultimately Jesus’ grace that changes people’s hearts, not my personal efforts.

When we look closely at today’s gospel, it’s clear that the Apostles’ mission is to set people free from various kinds of bondage. These are listed in Ancient Middle-Eastern terms. We can translate them into our modern language as mental, physical or ideological subjugation. Gaining freedom from some of those forms of bondage certainly requires the help and assistance of highly skilled professionals. But in many situations such service is neither required nor possible. In those many cases, religious ministry can and does play a vital role. The main channels are two sacraments, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the Sacrament of the Sick. Sadly, nowadays, both are misunderstood and consequently underused. But that’s a subject for another sermon!

So far, you might have learnt a tiny bit about what a priestly vocation involves. But that’s hardly applicable to most of you, is it? Is there anything in the gospel for you who are suffering quietly in the pews? Yes, there is. In the New Testament the twelve Apostles are not simply a random number of close friends and followers of Jesus’. They symbolise the Church, the whole community of believers. In this community everybody is called and chosen by God to carry out Jesus’ mission. Due to the availability of a vast number of priests and monks in past centuries, that mission was effectively reserved to the clergy, reducing the role of lay people to ‘church fodder’. Thank goodness, the current shortage of priests has rendered such a model unworkable, and – not without a struggle – has subsequently restored you, the lay people, to your rightful role as active participants in Jesus’ mission. You can reach out to those who’d never talk to a priest. You can bring consolation to those who need it. You can support those who struggle. In about 15 minutes’ time you will hear the words ‘Go forth, the Mass is ended.’ It’s not just a signal that you are free to go. It’s the moment when Jesus sends you out to the aching and needy world.