Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
June 7, 2014
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
“You are the salt of the earth.” Matthew 5:13
A now well-known story is told of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta who, when asked whether she was troubled with how little poverty was reduced in the world despite her efforts, replied that she was called to fidelity not to success. How foreign to the world today is that response! In a world that places so much emphasis upon success—in business, politics, sports, education, and entertainment—we should not be surprised. The human being is often reduced to the level of a machine and measured in purely materialistic terms. Yet, people like Blessed Teresa will not let the world rest in peace. They return to haunt the modern consciousness. They remind us of carelessly mislaid evangelical counsels, like poverty, chastity and obedience. They bring the modern person annoyingly back to the purpose for existence. They are beacons of selflessness. Plainly said, the disciple does not exist for himself.
When our Lord Jesus Christ compared His disciples to salt and light, He used vivid imagery. Salt and light exist for one purpose alone—to enhance something else. They are appropriate images for the selfless call of the Gospel. Let us begin with salt.
Because of increasing medical problems in our society today, salt enjoys an almost pejorative connotation. We seek out sodium-free foods. We want salt-free meals. Such was not the case in the days of Jesus. Salt was the “spice of life.” Salt brought out flavors that enhanced whatever it seasoned. And, as any average ancient—for that matter anyone before a Twenty-first Century American—would have known, salt had many variations. Different salts were used for different purposes, and one came to recognize the difference between salt of this or that region. So, the question of Jesus drives home the point: “But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?” (Matthew 5:13). Indeed! How can one restore a fundamental once it loses its existential purpose? “It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13).
Salt does not exist for itself. It exists for what it can do for the food it seasons. And the disciple is “the salt of the earth” (Matthew 5:13). How much more so the disciple who is Christ’s ordained minister? The bishop, the priest, and the deacon are not ordained for themselves. They are ordained for the Church, to enter service, to season the meal prepared by Christ for the world.
And what of the light? Again in our modern world we take light so much for granted. It is hard for us to imagine a world “lit only by fire” where candles were precious commodities, where oil for lamps was the possession of those who could afford it, where at sunset most of the community went to bed. This world understood better, I think, what Jesus meant. Light does not exist for itself but only for what it can illumine. Jesus reminds us that no one lights a lamp only to put it under a bushel basket (Matthew 5:15). “It is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house” (Matthew 5:15). A light is never lit for itself but for the service it renders to others.
God has created you, the ordained minister, for a purpose. You have purpose, a raison d’être, a reason for being, and it is hidden in God’s intention. But while the intention remains mysterious and only partially revealed at times, of this we can be certain. Like salt and light, you were not created for yourselves. Your purpose finds its meaning in what you can do for others—enhancing a flavor or shedding light for others to see.
The vocation to ordained ministry is a truly marvelous thing. It is worthy of our enraptured attention at prayer. To pardon the sinner in the name of Jesus, to hold the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in our hands, to act in persona Christi, to heal broken humanity, to listen to the lonely, to bring Christ to others—and all of this not for ourselves but for others. This life must be approached with extreme humility. Whatever good comes from our humble efforts is not our own. God has used us. He has understood us from the beginning with our failings and weaknesses, which we know all too well, and joined them to our strengths and talents, which we fail to recognize, and created something “beautiful for God.”
When you meet with “success,” as the world defines it, be very cautious. Even when done with the best of intentions, the Evil One can use a compliment to your detriment. When the faithful compliment your homilies and give you gifts and flatter your ego, when the Church bestows on you position and titles, say “thank you” and then step back and remember Blessed Teresa’s words—you were called to fidelity not to success. Remember you are salt and light. You were made not for yourselves but for others.
As Jesus reminds us in the Gospel, the true purpose of the disciple, who has become the salt and light of the world, is to “glorify your heavenly Father” (Matthew 5:16).