Every so often I am blessed to receive a letter or a care package from somebody in my diocese. Sometimes it is from somebody I know, but most of the time it comes from parishioners whom I have not yet met. The package may include a drawing from grade-school students, delicious baked goods or restaurant gift cards. Every time my heart is filled with joy as I’m reminded of God’s love for me in the very people I am being formed to serve. Perhaps the gift that has touched me the most this year was a small book written by Catherine Doherty entitled Dear Seminarian – Letters from a lay apostle on becoming a shepherd of souls.
Servant of God Catherine Doherty was a pioneer for social justice in the mid-20th century, wrote more than 40 books and founded the lay apostolate Madonna House. She was deeply immersed in the formation of seminarians, speaking more often to future priests than possibly any other woman in the tradition of the Church. It is from such a place of love for priests and seminarians that she compiled these “letters.”
The book opens, “Dear seminarian, I have been praying for you with all my heart, for you may be one of our future priests, and priests are a miracle of God’s love for us.” I imagined right away that these words had been penned not by Mrs. Doherty but by Mrs. Nourse, the woman who sent me the book. She continues, “A man, through the sacrament of Ordination, becomes another Christ, with powers that go beyond human imagination.”
With powers that go beyond human imagination… What could she be referring to? There is, of course, the celebration of Holy Mass in which God uses the priest to transform ordinary bread and wine into the very body and blood of Christ. There is also the sacrament of Reconciliation, that encounter in which we bare our souls before God and he absolves us of our sins. There is also preaching, visiting the sick, burying the dead and all other priestly ministries with which we are all familiar. However, a couple of weeks ago, Fr. Webb preached a homily that stretched my imagination a little farther.
The Gospel reading that morning was the story of the road to Emmaus, when the resurrected Jesus joins two of his disciples on a walk, but they don’t recognize that it is him. Jesus proceeds to interpret the events that had just taken place – his death and resurrection – in light of the Scriptures in such a way that it causes their hearts to burn within them. They invite him to stay with them for the evening. Jesus accepts the invitation. As they sit down for dinner, Jesus “took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.” It was at this moment that their eyes were opened and they recognized him. The two disciples then traveled back to Jerusalem and shared with the Eleven how Jesus had made himself known to them in the breaking of the bread (cf. Lk 24:13-35).
Over our fall break, twelve seminarians drove to the campus of Northwestern University for a campus outreach ministry. After many hours of conversations about faith with college students and celebrating Mass at the Newman center, we made our way to Chili’s for dinner. It was bitter cold night with winds of 30 mph. As we were walking in, four homeless men approached us and asked us for money for a meal. Blake Brooks, a first year theologian, responded, “Would you like to come in and have dinner with us?”
They jumped at the opportunity. At first, they thought we were joking. Once we asked the hostess for a table for sixteen, they exclaimed, “You guys are serious!” We sat down and ordered drinks and appetizers. The appetizers were followed by salads, racks of ribs and finally desserts. As we feasted we talked about sports, shared stories from our lives, mourned over bad decisions and thanked God for his love and mercy. We also laughed… a lot. At one point the homeless man who was sitting next to me, Dwayne, paused from his ribs, picked up his wine glass, sat back on his chair, surveyed the scene around him and let out a sigh, “Wow…Are we really doing this?”
When Fr. Webb retold this story during his homily, he asked us whether what happened in that cold night in Chicago was really much different from what happened on the road to Emmaus. Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us? Our eyes were opened and we recognized him in our midst.
The “Letters” of Catherine Doherty end with a poem which she called The Little Mandate. She believed that she received it directly from Jesus and placed it as the core of her spirituality. It reads:
Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you..
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love… love… love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbor’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you. Pray always.
I will be your rest.
Dear Dwayne, thank you for dining with us. You made yourself known to us in the breaking of the bread.