(late posting due to computer trouble)
When I was a senior in college a few decades ago, I still wasn’t sure what my life’s work was going to be. But early that year I made the annual retreat arranged by the university, and ideas began to form more clearly. The retreat master was talking to thousands of us in an immense auditorium-gymnasium; but, despite that inevitable remoteness, the message was getting through, I realized much later. I began to think seriously once more about the possibility of my becoming a priest.
One day around that time, I gave a freshman a ride into town. He asked me what I’d be doing after my graduation, and so I tried out my new response with this eager listener. He thought it was a terrific idea; he encouraged me enthusiastically and said that he knew what I was feeling because he himself had been toying with the idea of becoming a priest.
But then he told me, with the simplicity of a child, that one of the main reasons for his attraction to priesthood was the long, black West Point-like cape that some priests wore in those days!
But, think of this: the motives of some of the apostles seem to have been not too much loftier than this young man’s. Remember that they used to argue about who among them would have the lion’s share of power in Jesus’ kingdom. The mother of two of them attempted to verify Jesus’ offer and asked if her sons would really be made his second and third in command.
My friend’s desire to wear the impressive clerical cape was, I suppose, what we’d call today an ego trip. At that stage in his life at least, he was primarily concerned with what was in the priesthood for himself. It was his glory, his sense of well-being and importance, his image that he was serving. To my mind, it’s hard to distinguish that from the motivation of some of the apostles when Jesus first called them.
But what shall we say about the fishing incident we just heard about again in today’s gospel reading? A night of exhausting, hard work was over for the apostles, and there was not a single fish to show for it. This was no sport or hobby they were engaged in; it was their livelihood, their profession. No matter their fatigue and discouragement, Jesus tells them to do something that seemed absurd and doomed to more failure: put the nets back into the water, he says, a command for which they have absolutely no enthusiasm. Maybe to humor him or to show respect for him, they do lower the nets – and totally to their surprise they enjoy the thrill of an enormous catch!
The lesson I find in this gospel is that there isn’t a situation or a moment in anyone’s life that the power of the Spirit cannot use to produce or to achieve good, if we are willing. We live on the threshold of greatness. The Divine Spirit can and does express itself in anything we have to offer, even our past sins.
I don’t know if my college friend ever did enter a seminary. After my graduation, I never saw him again. But I have to believe that it’s not impossible that the trivial ambition to wear a distinctive garment (which I never owned or wore, by the way) eventually occasioned more befitting thoughts about the meaning of priesthood and that he is a priest somewhere today. Who knows?
Whatever the past has been for any of us – however empty or painful or confused — it has brought us to this moment of grace, an opportunity for new and better life, and another step toward a blessed eternity.