By: Fr. James Gross
I want to begin by asking for your prayers for a group of us taking a pilgrimage to Washington, DC for the March for Life this coming week. I have been asked to accompany the delegation from Dickinson Trinity High School; their religion teacher is a good friend of mine, and their priest is not available, so she asked me to pinch hit. We are leaving Monday and returning Saturday night. Google maps tells me that, from Fargo, it will be a 2,694-mile round trip by bus, and add six hundred miles to that number for the rest of the group from Dickinson. Teenagers seem to sleep just fine on a bus—we grownups are not nearly as flexible.
Usually this event occurs closer to the 22nd, the anniversary date of the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision. Because of the Inauguration, it got pushed back to this coming Friday, but is still held on a weekday instead of a weekend in order to have the greatest impact on the local life of the city. You may not hear a single thing in the news media about the hundreds of thousands of us who will be there, most of them young people. This is where social media helps to fill that void by telling the real story.
The goal we seek is to safeguard the gift that is every single human life—the child in the womb, their mothers and fathers, and everyone else. We can love and honor all of the above, and in fact, are mandated to do so by Christ. Perhaps our federal and state laws will again come to reflect godly values and renounce the culture of death; of course we earnestly pray for this. But the means to lasting change is the transformation of hearts. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, and we are his instruments.
The Bishops of the United States ask us to commemorate January 22nd as a day of prayer and fasting for the legal protection of unborn children. When the 22nd falls on a Sunday, it is transferred to the following day. I challenge each and every one of you to treat Monday like Ash Wednesday, with spiritual and material sacrifices. Prayer is the powerful tool that we all have close at hand to achieve a civilization of love, one that honors life no matter the circumstances or the cost.
Isaiah begins today’s reading by mentioning “the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali.” I’m assuming these are not household names to most of us, so we need to look at the background. Halfway through the book of Genesis we read about the patriarch Jacob. In a famous scene in which Jacob wrestles with an angel who appeared to him, God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, so those two names are for the same person. Jacob had twelve sons, and we refer to the extended families of each son as “tribes.” When we hear the phrase “twelve tribes of Israel,” it’s a way of thinking about the nation of Israel in terms of heritage and genealogy—which tribe one belongs to. Zebulon and Naphtali are two of Jacob’s sons.
When the nation of Israel finally took possession of the Promised Land, the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali occupied border regions of the country, quite distant from Jerusalem, which was in the south. Some five hundred years later, the Empire of Assyria attacked Israel, and the regions of Zebulon & Naphtali were most susceptible to that invasion. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks to God’s compassion for those tribes. Although a foreign power devastated the residents of that place, God would bring a great light to them to overcome their darkness. The places in Palestine that were far from the Temple were not far from the kingdom of Christ.
While Jesus reached out to all the lost sheep of the house of Israel, he began by setting out for the frontier of Galilee. It’s in this part of Palestine that a great many of Jesus’ parables and miracles take place. I really like the choice Jesus made to travel to an outlying area first. People are always “worth it:” they always deserve to hear the good news, regardless of where they come from. When Jesus makes tracks for Zebulon & Naphtali, one might say there’s some similarity to traveling to North Dakota. We know we’re worth the trip, even if hardly anyone else thinks so.
Once Jesus begins, his message is very simple and clear: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” The specific meaning of the word “repent” is not necessarily based on conversion from sin, though that is a part of all of our lives. What “repent” actually means here is to turn one’s life around, to go in a different direction. The first concern in the Lord’s mind was that people think of their lives differently, that they would come to know and experience the deep, personal love God has for them. Once God becomes more than some mysterious force and begins to take hold of our hearts, then moral conversion occurs more organically. Then sin displeases us as it displeases God. We practice virtues, not only to play by the rules, but to live in Communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Only when we repent does that make sense to us.
Jesus then starts to call people to follow him as disciples. The candidates we hear about today are Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John. These four would later become Apostles, and from the very start they prove their mettle by immediately abandoning their homes and careers—everything familiar to them—to follow Christ. They remind us that a vocation starts with God, and not with us. Everybody asks the question as they grow up, “What am I going to do with my life?” The Christian inserts a second, and more urgent, question: “What is God inviting me to do with my life?”
When someone at St. Philip Neri parish in Napoleon commented that they thought I might make a good priest, it wasn’t just their opinion. God showed them something about me that prompted them to tell me. And doing that is a sort of risk; it’s saying something that one might be more comfortable keeping to oneself. But when we discern that God may indeed be moving a young man’s heart to a religious vocation, he counts on us to trust what we’re seeing. This is one of the most important ways that a parish promotes priestly vocations. A pastor or vocations director can make their pitch, and those things have their place, but as far as that goes, we do not take your place. Don’t just leave it up to mom and dad, either. We all need to speak up, because the future of the church depends on generous hearts serving in Christ’s name.
Dioceses in cities across the country like Denver, Minneapolis, and St. Louis are undergoing building projects to add to their seminaries because of the increase in numbers of candidates. Many parts of the country are enjoying a resurging interest in priestly ministry. What these places are doing (and we can include the diocese of Fargo and Bismarck in that list) is no big secret. They are inviting their home-grown high school and college age men to pray about their vocation, and above all to listen carefully for the voice of Jesus. They’re turning to the powerful intercession of Mary. Their priests are giving joyful and confident witness to the beauty of the priestly life. Let’s join with them by spreading, and sharing in, that hope that Jesus gave to every corner of Galilee in his three-year ministry and continues to give to all of us today.