Not too long ago, a young man asked me to share my story about becoming a priest.  I kind of laughed because I said there’s the long version and the even longer version.  Many people imagine that a vocation story will be something undeniable, like I was born with a collar around my neck, or that there was this definitive, burning-bush moment where God made it abundantly clear.  Perhaps that comes from encountering Gospel passages like this one.  We hear Jesus calling 12 of his disciples to become His apostles and imagine that was their destiny, that they were set apart from the moment they were conceived and they were playing out their assigned roles.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the 11th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME -JUNE 18, 2023.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

Many things stand out in my heart and mind that I can remember as signs and things leading me to recognizing God’s call.  Even as far back as Kindergarten when our pastor, Fr. Whelan left a note for my parents when he had stopped by on a Sunday afternoon.  The poor Irish priest didn’t realize that the “Chern” family was very Italian and was, in fact, in Nutley, New Jersey, as they were practically every Sunday for dinner at Grandma and Grandpa’s house on Princeton Street and then stopping by my other Grandma’s house on Taft Street on the way home.  But Fr Whelan left a note just encouraging my parents, saying how much he loved seeing them with the three boys on Sundays (more than likely, he saw how exhausted my parents were as they navigated “musical-pew” to get one of us away from the others who were messing around) and just added, “make sure little Jimmie gets to Mass every week.”  I doubt my brothers even remember that note or this whole episode, but that was a memory where I first recognized that God knew me, saw me and cared for me.  Not that Fr. Whelan was God – but being all the way up there in front at Mass on Sunday at Church, I knew that he obviously worked for him – so that was a big deal.

There are moments like that throughout my early years through middle school, high school, and college that, in hindsight, are notable.  But they were happening just as life continued.  Ordinary, very common things that anyone experienced:  struggling with grades in school; the ups and downs of trying to find yourself – striking out athletically, but then getting involved with student government and being a student leader and finding my circle of friends there.  Dating and the ups and downs of those first heartbreaks and cringe-worthy stories that years later you still blush out of embarrassment.  For me, the idea of priesthood was always there, but so many other options were as well.

It wasn’t until my Senior year of college that I decided it had been a question long enough that I needed to be more intentional and attentive about it.  So I made an appointment with the Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Newark.  At the time I was in school in Pennsylvania, so when I told my parents I was coming home, that’s when it got interesting.  My mother simply asked why I was coming home this specific weekend and when I explained I was going to meet with the Vocation Director, she got a little Italian Mother Crazy.  She started asking 20 questions that sounded like I was either entering the military or committing to a mortgage of a lease “What does this mean?  What are you going to do?  You’re not signing something?”  As the conversation became more animated, she announced, “I’m coming with you.”  To which I responded, “You’re not invited.  If you want to meet with the vocation director, make your own appointment.”  That stopped her in her tracks, and she got silent.  I figured, yep, I’m a man; I’m not a mamma’s boy…

I met with the vocation director, who explained the discernment process, the application process, and so on.  It felt right – that I needed to take this a bit more serious and see where the Lord was leading and to initiate the process more formally.

I never expected to get back to college and a few days later to have the Vocation Director call and say, “Jim, in all the years I’ve done this, I’ve never had this happen before, and I don’t know what to make of this or where this leaves us.”  The concern in his voice and the tone were so different from where we had left things just a few days earlier that my mind started racing about what could’ve gone wrong.  And then he said, “Your mother called.  And she wants to meet with me.”  I still remember standing in my dorm room with the phone in my hand and being open-jawed and speechless.  The confident 20-year-old who had thought he was so clever and dismissive saying “make your own appointment” was obviously not as smart and obviously had forgotten who he was dealing with.   Fortunately, another priest who I knew well and knew my family well happened to be working with the Vocation Director and assured him that while this was way unorthodox and unprecedented, he should meet with them.  So literally, on the night of my 21st birthday, as I was out with my friends celebrating that rite of passage at a local bar, my parents went to meet with the Vocation Director.

At the heart of their concerns and worries, they said they thought I’d be a good husband and father and, at 20 years old, had so many options ahead that they were worried about my going into the seminary and “giving all that up.”  The Vocation Director listened to them and just said “But isn’t that the kind of guy you’d want as a priest?  Someone who could be a good husband or Dad and that could be doing anything else?  Don’t you think that’s the kind of person Jesus would want as His priest?”

That struck them and caused a 180 degree shift for my parents.  That almost immediately helped them realize that this call to priesthood wasn’t because I was special or different.  What was special and different was the call to priesthood itself.   And for my parents that in sacrificing what they might have wanted, as I sacrificed what I might have wanted trusting that God’s plans, His purposes, His dreams were far greater than any of us could imagine, that would bring not only a joy to my life and our lives – but even more, would bring His Joy and His love in His service of what Jesus lays out in the Gospel dealing with His first priests.  Proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand – and being gifted with His mission of curing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers, driving out demons….

This passage we heard tonight when Jesus first calls and commissions the 12 comes from the 9th Chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel.   For those 12, far from canonized Saints, statues and stained glass images we have of them, they too were ordinary men.  They had families, friends, jobs, dreams, and ambitions – just like each and every one of us.  They had some incredible gifts and talents, some struggles, and obvious weaknesses.  They weren’t perfect.  They were human beings who were following Jesus.  They were listening to Him teach; They had just witnessed the healings of paralytics, a dead girl being brought back to life, the healing of two men blind from birth, and a man who had been mute, being able to speak.  As much as they were excited and had their minds blown, nothing could’ve prepared them for this particular day.  When He looked at them and say, “now you do it.”  But not on their own merit, their own ability, their own worthiness – rather in spite of those things.  They could only do these things in as much as they died to themselves and said Yes to Him… that they listened to Jesus… that they trusted Jesus.

Jesus’ heart is still moved for us His people.  Nothing escapes His notice, His care… When he sees the chaos and confusion of this world, where so many people have not simply moved away from faith and religion but have grown indifferent or hateful to God… When the illusions and delusions of this world continue to entrap, and ensnare people into dangerous behaviors and destructive ideologies.  When the world has become far more accessible from one continent to the other in a way our ancestors of just a few generations could never have dreamed.  Yet, people are lonelier, more isolated, and disconnected than ever -Jesus sees all that – and His heart is moved with pity for us – because so many are troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.  But it doesn’t have to be like this.  It’s not supposed to be like this.  And one of the ways He addresses these realities is through His priesthood.

Are we asking for laborers for His harvest?  Are we praying and fasting for vocations?  How are we speaking of those vocations?  We all know some bad stories – priests and religious who’ve failed.  But why is it in our day and age that we seem to focus on the Judases rather than the other 11?  Can we share stories of the priests, the sisters who cared for us, was there for us, cried with us, walked with us with our families and just encourage our children, our young people to be open minded and open hearted to the possibility?

I love being a priest.  A few weeks ago, I was able to attend the ordination and first Mass of a young man for the diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, that I was blessed to work with in Spiritual Direction.  Watching this new priest, I couldn’t help but remember how overwhelming and kind of surreal it was the first time celebrating the Sacraments, standing in Christ’s place, letting Him cover me with His priesthood and using my voice, my presence, my life to make His real and present.  But I can say that while those first jitters and nerves are gone – the awesomeness and surrealness is greater than ever.  I feel more humbled and at a loss now than I did 24 years ago.  Recognizing how God continues to become real and present through the Shepherds He provides in His priests.