Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This weekend the Winter Olympics begin. For the next three weeks, athletes from around the world compete in sports to which they have dedicated years of their lives. Simply competing in an Olympiad is a tremendous accomplishment, to say nothing of winning a medal in a particular sport or discipline. Next weekend the Super Bowl will be watched by millions. Whether you watch because you have a team in the game, or because you like the commercials, or because it feels culturally appropriate, we will watch athletes who have reached a game they may have only dreamed of playing. In the days leading to and throughout both the Olympics and the Super Bowl, the sport is not the only focus of attention. In addition to the games themselves, we will hear the human interest side, the inspiring stories of athletes who have overcome adversity, or who play with a focus on raising awareness for a cause, or who have dedicated their performance to a particular person watching at home. We will be moved by the humility and gratitude of so many athletes who will point to teammates, coaches, and families as their true motivation, who will speak about how humbled and honored they are to be able to compete, and even how undeserving of the privilege they feel.
The lens of sports can be helpful as we read the Gospel this weekend. As Jesus gets into the boat belonging to Peter, He gets on board a vessel captained by an unsuccessful fisherman. Peter et. al. have caught nothing all night, hardly a medal-worthy performance. When Jesus finishes teaching and asks Peter to put the boat in deeper water for a catch of fish, we can sympathize with Peter’s skepticism. Though he has just heard the powerful teaching of Jesus firsthand, Peter is an experienced fisherman receiving fishing advice from a carpenter. In that moment, Jesus had about as much credibility to provide fishing strategies as today’s modern caller to a sports talk-radio show. Something, though, stirs in Peter’s heart and he does what Jesus asks, resulting in an immense catch of fish (and therefore a significant future payout). Seeing this, success or failure is no longer the measure for Peter. Rather, he sees the miraculous occurring right before him, a gift he could never have imagined. He is humbled by the generosity of God, and for all the personal effort he has made to be successful, is abundantly aware that the full nets in his boat have nothing to do with his skill. And so, on his knees before Jesus, Peter speaks humbly, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Peter’s knowledge of his unworthiness mirrors the humility expressed by the prophet Isaiah in the first reading this weekend, as he took up the prophetic mantle. It is echoed by the humility of St. Paul in the second reading, who calls himself the “least of the Apostles.” When charged by God with an important mission, it seems that the normal, Biblical response, is to express one’s unworthiness. How fitting! To be called by God to a task that is for the salvation of souls and the proclamation of the Divine Word is an immense privilege and of such spiritual weight that one cannot help but feel unworthy for the task. Isaiah, Paul, and Peter, are all given a vocation, a mission. All recognize their unworthiness, but are met, not with condemnation for their sinfulness or unworthiness, but rather with the mercy of the God who has chosen them: Isaiah’s lips are symbolically cleansed by the burning coal, Paul is brought to healing by the same Jesus whom he had persecuted, and Peter is told that he will no longer be a fisherman, but a catcher of souls.
Each of us has some particular vocation, a mission that God wishes to entrust to us. When we begin to discern the ways God calls us, we will understandably feel unworthy. I have never met a priest who believes he is worthy of his calling. A married couple may question in their hearts what they have done to deserve the love of their spouse. Even more, they will cry tears of joy and fear when they hold their newborn child in their arms for the first time, grateful for the gift, but wondering if they are good enough. This sense of unworthiness, appropriately balanced, can be extremely healthy. By our own talent, skill, or merit, we cannot do any of the great things God may call us to. Just as the men approaching the line of scrimmage in the Super Bowl know that they have a job to do but that the job is not a solo task, we, in our unworthiness, must remember that our vocation is not something imposed on us with no support. Isaiah, Peter, and Paul all received their vocations and were given everything necessary by the God who called them. Not only did God give them everything necessary, in mercy, the Lord also gave them formative lessons along the way. We know well the foibles of Peter and Paul, and they testify to their own weakness even as they teach and guide (n.b. – we know less about Isaiah, as prophetic literature is more oracular in nature than the historical accounts of the Gospels or the pastoral testimonies of the Apostolic epistles). Our first and greatest support in living out our vocation is God Himself! He wants us to succeed! Additionally, God gives us people whose particular gifts and talents will be a blessing to us as we live out the call He has given. Finally, like those great athletes we will see compete in the next few weeks, God challenges us to develop and grow, to train well so that we can live the mission. Aware that we are not worthy of the task, we can rejoice that God will equip us for the calling, and will give us the grace and strength needed to grow so that we can compete well in the race before us.