There’s the story about a bishop – let’s say his name is John – who one day called in one of his priests for correction because of a bit of liturgical innovation.
It seems that the good priest instead of simply praying in the Mass “for our Pope, Benedict, for our Bishop John, he was taking some liberties with the formula by saying “for our Pope Benedict and for our Bishop John, your unworthy servant.”
“Father”, the bishop said, “You got to stop doing this”. The priest said,” What’s the problem, you say it”. The problem is the bishop replies, “you mean it.”
Well, last week while in the Holy Land, I celebrated Mass at a chapel called, San Pietro en Cantagallo, St. Peter’s where the cock crowed – and where Peter then wept bitter tears for having denied the Lord.
And just after the consecration, a rooster crowed. I don’t know if it was real rooster or a recording. But let me tell you, I was taken aback and when I got to the part, “and me your unworthy servant” I was certainly conscious of the truth of that statement.
The only consolation for me – and for anyone of us – bishop or priests – who carry this great treasure of our priesthood in vessels of clay is to remember that each one of us – reaching back to Peter and the apostles – stands in a long line of “unworthy servants”.
As the protagonist of Bernanos’s novel, “The Diary of a Country Priest”, says: It is all grace. God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.
And this is born out in the gospel according to St. Luke. In Luke’s gospel, Simon only follows Jesus after the cure of his mother-in-law. For Peter – and for us – faith and discipleship grow of an encounter with a miracle. In other words, it is not of our own doing, of our making. It is a grace, a gratuitous gift from God. And God being God will oftentimes remind us of this – in ways as surprising and as unexpected as a cock’s crow.
And thank God for those reminders – even those he might give us that are not so gentle. And often times, God uses our people who today not longer put us up on a high pedestal to remind us that we are indeed “unworthy servants”.
Only when we are conscience of this can we also be “humble servants”. And here to return to today’s gospel it is interesting to note that the demons from the start knew Jesus and what he is about. We humans need a long journey of faith before we really “get it”, before we know what Jesus is really about, before we can really appreciate the role of the Cross in the Messiah’s life – and in our own. For Peter that journey began with the miracle of his mother-in-law’s cure. But his journey would not always be in a straight line as ours is often not. And if his mother-in-law’s cure led to his following of Jesus, he himself along the way of disciple also needed to be cured of his own fevers. In the Church Fathers, in their commentaries on this gospel, saw “fever” as a symbol of concupiscence. For example, St. Ambrose writes: “Peter’s mother-in-law represents our flesh affected by various illnesses and concupiscences: our fever is passion, our fever is lust, our fever is anger, vices which though they affect the body perturb the soul, the mind and the feelings.”
Jesus graciously cured Peter’s mother-in-law – and this cure was not for her own personal gain but for service. In the same way, as we continue on our faith journey, conscience of our unworthiness – didn’t Peter later say on his own journey, “Depart from me, O Lord, for I am a sinful man.”- as we continue on our faith journey, let us pray one for another that the Lord who called us with indeed qualify us by continuing to heal us for service.
Oremus pro invicem.