Updated: Oct 31
I would like to give you a glimpse into the overarching theological vision that guides all my thinking and will influence all that I say and post on this website.
As part of a “theology squad” for Bishop Ken Untener of the Diocese of Saginaw for a number of years (why I was part of that rather than one in Detroit is a story for another day), he would suggest topics and ask us to engage in open-ended and free-wheeling discussion, bringing to the conversation our varied interests (Scripture, Moral Theology, Ecclesiology, Fundamental Theology, Theological Anthropology, Pastoral Theology, Sacramental Theology, and Spirituality). One time the topic was to share as succinctly as possible the overarching vision which guided our thinking. In Part Three of this “Origin Story” I will share mine, but two others have influenced me to this day. The first, from Fr. Jeffery Donner (presbyter of the Diocese of Saginaw, now deceased) was the shortest and, probably, the best: “Jesus teaches us that actions have one of two sources, love or fear; always act out of love, never out of fear.” What a powerful tool for discernment, both of one’s own actions and the actions of others. How often leaders, church and society, act out of fear rather than love. [One might even contrast the papacies of Francis and Benedict based on this discernment!]
The second, from Bishop Ken Untener, was the distillation of a homily from Cardinal Dearden (which Ken helped to write) for the Mass for the deceased clergy of the Archdiocese of Detroit on October 25, 1979. I was at that Mass, just prior to being ordained a deacon, but did not recall Cardinal Dearden’s words—he was so soft spoken—until seeing them later in print. You will find it on the internet erroneously attributed to various people, so I am reproducing the full text of the homily below, with the words highlighted that were later pulled out by Ken and crafted into a type of theological vision, so that both Dearden and Untener get their proper credit. More importantly, for my purposes here, is the ecclesiological vision that captures well the interplay of Church-World-Kingdom.
“When we look back on the life of a bishop such as Cardinal Mooney, and the lives of priests such as we are commemorating today, it is natural to think of all the things they did—the plans and programs they implemented, the hours and hours of dedicated pastoral work, the countless Masses, baptisms, marriages, the broken lives they helped to heal, the buildings they built… That is as it should be, for our predecessors labored long and hard in the Lord’s vineyard. They fought the good fight. They ran the race with energy and zeal, and we can look back with admiration and thanksgiving.
Today, I would like to look at it from a different perspective. I would like to reflect, instead, on all the things they didn’t do. At first that may sound strange, even a bit irreverent. But it is not meant to be so. Quite the opposite. It is meant to be very, very reverent. It is meant to remind us that what they were doing—and what we are doing—is so great, so sacred, that it could never be accomplished in a lifetime. We are about the Lord’s work, not our own. It is the Lord who builds the house, not ourselves. We are sowers of seeds, not reapers of the harvest. We preach the Kingdom begun, not the Kingdom accomplished.
It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is beyond our vision. We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is the Lord’s [God’s] work.
What all this comes down to is the realization that everything we do is incomplete. And we have to approach it that way, with humility, a sense of mystery, a profound reverence. That is not always an easy thing to do. There is something in each of us that makes us want to do a complete job and call it our own. We are driven toward wholeness. We want to experience the fulfillment of rounding things off nicely. We want to finish them, settle things before moving on to our next task. It can’t be done.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No sermon [statement] says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church's mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
In our first reading we heard Paul speak of planting a seed, watering it, and then acknowledging that the Lord gives the growth. He spoke also of laying a foundation upon which someone else would build. Then in the Gospel we heard Jesus speak of a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, that one day develops into the largest of plants. He spoke of a tiny portion of yeast that eventually affects a large mass of dough.
This is what we are about. We plant [the] seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
The priest who has this perspective has the key to happiness and holiness. He can be happy, because he doesn’t need success measured in this world’s terms—and we seldom have success in those terms. He can be holy because he accepts the Lord’s most basic formula for holiness: becoming like a little child, realizing that without the Lord we can do nothing, realizing that He is the vine, we are the branches. To say that what we do is incomplete is not to say that what we do is unimportant. It becomes even more important, because it is part of something greater than meets the eye. It is as important as planting is to the harvest…as a foundation to a skyscraper.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very, [very] well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the Master Builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.
We celebrate this in every Eucharist. We hold in our hands the mystery of the “already” and the “not yet.” That is why, as so many spiritual writers have noted, priests invariably make the Eucharist the center of their spiritual life. Amid all the tasks and worries and hopes and dreams that are so incomplete, we celebrate the coming of Him Who is the Alpha and the Omega, the King of the universe. Everything comes together when we hold the Eucharist before our people and say, “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours Almighty Father, forever and ever. Amen.”
These are the reflections that come to mind when we look back on the lives of the priests who came before us. The incompleteness of their work reminds us of the incompleteness of our own. At the same time, the value of what they did reminds us of the value of our own work, and of the care and the reverence that must attend each and everything we do.
I might also say that these are the reflections that come to mind when you are an old priest who just celebrated his 72nd birthday. They have been a source of strength and peace to me every day of my priesthood, and that is why I wanted to share them with you. The prayer of Simeon has always meant a great deal to me. It is not an accident that the Church places that prayer on our lips at the end of each day. No matter how incomplete our efforts may have been, despite our limitations, despite our failures, we can say with much peace and much fulfillment: “Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed displayed for all the peoples to see: a revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel.”
We can say that every night. And Cardinal Mooney and the priests of this diocese could say it when they died. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.” [Amen].
The highlighted portion was Untener’s contribution to the theological conversation about putting into words the vision or story that guided all that he did. His doctoral thesis was in ecclesiology and a proper theology of the Church was always important to him. It is a powerful affirmation of the vision from the Second Vatican Council of the Church as leaven within the world, on a journey, incomplete but with an essential key to full human flourishing. It is a wonderful vision for all who minister as servants of the Gospel and for all who are trying to do good in this world. We are ”prophets of a future that is not our own” and the Kingdom is always “beyond our efforts.” That means we do not have all the answers. We can learn from the wisdom of the world around us, even as we share with the world our Gospel vision. So let us not fear the world or demonize the world but always act “out of love, not fear.”
Next will be my own contribution to that discussion. I call it the “Story That Sustains Me.”