Homily for Archdiocese Clergy Symposium

by Nabil L. Hanna, presbyter

Beloved and Holy Fathers and brethren,

“Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock in which the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the Church of God” (Acts 20.28).

These were among St. Paul’s parting words—his final admonition—to the elders of Ephesos, where he had labored and invested so much of himself. These words indicate clearly that the flock is Christ’s flock, and the Church is God’s. So, what about us clergy? Christ is the One Shepherd, the Good Shepherd of the sheep. In his image, the bishop is the primary pastor.

So, what about us presbyters? What then is our role? What is our responsibility? Do we have any responsibility?, or is it just Christ’s and the bishop’s?

Recall, as Fr. Paul noted last night, that, at our ordination, the consecrated Lamb—as the symbol of the Church—was placed in our hands with the charge to keep it pure, to guard it and care for it, and we were forewarned that we shall have to give account for it. If I have to account to Christ, then, yes, I am responsible. If our salvation depends on how the flock fares, then yes, we do share the pastoral responsibility.

Like many of you, I still have “ringing in my ears” the voice of one of our seminary professors, saying the pastor must have epimelia for his flock. In fact this is a beautiful term that indicates a pastor must care for the well being of his “rational sheep” in all aspects. St. Paul, the human pastor par excellence, our model second to Christ alone, not only preached to and taught his community, he cared for their physical needs too. He worked with his own hands to support himself and his company and he offered charity. He was so very zealous, as you know, to take up an offering and to deliver it to the poor saints suffering in Jerusalem.

Thus I’d like to offer just two points for us to think about. This is just a meditation. I am certainly not even attempting to give a complete treatise on the subject. I offer one item about which to take heed for ourselves and one item for us to take heed concerning the flock.

Starting with the latter, I have recently entered into a dialogue with another pastor in Indianapolis about something you may not have thought of yet. This pastor first brought it to my attention, and we have since been reading, researching and sharing information with one another. While this is neither the time nor place to discuss the background of the problem in detail, we, as pastors, need to be aware of this matter and to plan for the hardship our flocks may face with onset of the year 2000.

Fathers and brethren, no, I am NOT one of those who say the end of the world will come in 2000 or that that is when our Lord will return. As we know, his coming is even now imminent. Rather, because of our world’s dependence on computers, which in turn depend on programs that were not written to handle a new century, many, many computer systems and the services that they provide are likely to fail. You may have heard about this “Year 2000” or “Y2k” problem in the media of late, but the problem is that too many businesses and governments started addressing the problem too late. So, let us take heed; here’s a “heads up.”

Let me just give a couple of illustrations. People over a hundred years old have already received invitations to kindergarten orientation. Why? Because the computers at the Social Security Administration could not distinguish between 1900 and 2000. Now, if we think this is an occasion for a laugh or, at worst, a minor nuisance, what will we do when our hundren year-old parishoners no longer get their social security checks? You don’t have any centenarians in your parish? Ok, what are we going to do about the five million dollar statements we and our parishioners get from our credit card companies, electric companies, gas companies, etc., with a hundred years of delinquent payments with accrued interest? Then you’ll get your heat turned off for non-payment in the dead of winter. When you try to call and complain, you won’t get through because everyone else will be trying to do the same, assuming that the telephone system will be operational. Businesses will have the same problems and may have to shut down and lay off their workers. Most of the problems would probably be corrected in a couple months’ time, but how many of us or our parishioners would be able to forgo a couple of months’ pay—especially young families who have put everything into the home they’ve mortgaged and live paycheck to paycheck?

Hopefully businesses will put in all out efforts for the next 18 months to analyze and correct their potential problems, so that we will experience only minimal disruption. The more likely scenario is otherwise. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, reports that they’ll be on track to have the Year 2000 problem corrected in 2008! Even if none of these potential problems materializes—again indications are otherwise—the nation’s leading economists are now predicting a 70% chance of a major recession just in anticipation of problems.

Let us take heed brethren. We need to be aware of this and to plan to pastor our flocks through this coming tribulation. I for one, plan to keep some cash on hand from our charitable fund—cold cash, since I may not be able to access bank accounts—ATM machines might not be working if the worst predictions come to pass. I plan to store food and firewood. At the very, very least we should alert our people to plan for this as they would plan for an approaching winter storm, with some food, firewood and candles, enough to last a few days.

We have to take heed to what is coming. St. Paul forewarned the Ephesians about fierce wolves that would come to ravage the flock. Here is one such threat to the flock and to individual sheep.

Let us also take heed lest the flock or, especially, we ourselves should get faint-hearted. This is the second item I’d like to offer in this meditation. It would be easy to think that God has abandoned us if the worst predictions should come to pass. We should need to respond to such doubts. As pastors, it is easy for us to get caught up in the details, whether in administering a massive, charitable program we’re hurriedly set up or the everyday busy work we all know now. It is easy for us to become demoralized or despondent when the sheep will not be led. It is easy to lose sight of the Kingdom as we get into a routine. What good would we be to our selves or to our flocks then? It is so easy to feel rejected and betrayed when the love we offer our flocks appears unrequited. Let us take heed.

St. Paul, the great pastor, suffered all this and more. You know this; you certainly don’t need me to tell you. One thing kept him going through all his hardship, privations, imprisonment, shipwreck and, especially, betrayal: the vision of the risen Lord he saw at his conversion on the road to Damascus. Four times, he reports this event in the New Testament, three times in the book of Acts alone. He never forgot that vision; he didn’t allow himself to do so.

We all, likewise, have at times experienced the presence of God in our lives, when there was no other possible explanation. Yet, as time goes by, we doubt and forget and rationalize and explain away and become faint-hearted. Holy fathers and brethren, let us make ourselves remember those times when we know Christ has revealed Himself in our lives and intervened providentially on our behalf. We are given these moments to strengthen us during times of tribulation, just as our Lord gave Peter, James and John the vision of the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor, lest they should become faint-hearted on seeing Him crucified. Well, Peter forgot anyway. Let us be like Paul rather than Peter in this respect.

We shall have to give account of how we have cared for Christ’s flock. Even though it is His, we must view the flock as our own responsibility. Thus, we must be prepared, boldly, by God’s grace and strength, to defend it, to present in ourselves a living model of faithfulness and to provide for all manner of the flock’s need.