Bishop Glen John Provost, D.D., M.A
Bishop of Lake Charles
Saturday, May 22, 2021
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
“[D]o you love me more than these?” John 21:15
When friends from elsewhere ask me, “Are things going well down there in Louisiana?”, the answer escapes me. With two hurricanes simultaneous to a pandemic, an ice storm and now flooding, I am challenged to find adequate words. We are devastated, trying to recover, and facing unprecedented difficulties. Without tested experience to inform our decisions, we are like rookies thrust onto a field of battle to devise maneuvers addressing an unimaginable foe. One can easily identify with Jeremiah in our first reading (cf. Jeremiah 1:4-9) and ask how can I be a prophet? I cannot even speak. The Lord seems to answer that helplessness is good. This inadequacy is exactly what He wants because He will provide the words. All we must do is listen.
Priests and Bishops need to listen. And to whom must they listen? To God. Ultimately the voice is His. This appreciation of listening to God brings us to the topic of obedience. The very word obey derives from the Latin meaning “to give ear” or “to hearken.” As stubborn human nature would have it, sometimes only catastrophes can unstop our ears to listen.
When our Lord commissions St. Peter, He requires obedience. Acutely aware of his shortcomings, St. Peter is ready to listen. St. Peter must feed the Lord’s lambs (cf. John 21:15, 17). He must tend the Lord’s sheep (cf. John 21:16). To resolve this obedience, to ascertain St. Peter’s acquiescence, the Lord asks three times, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” (cf. John 21:15, 16, 17).
How often in the priestly life does our Lord ask us that question? In every moment before the Blessed Sacrament in prayer, in every elevation of the Sacred Host at Holy Mass, in every call for a late-night emergency—we hear the voice asking, “Do you love me?” And we must answer, “Yes.”
But there comes a time when disaster strikes. Something terribly unpleasant happens and we are devastated as never before. We run to the Lord and ask, “Why?” The Lord answers with a question, “Do you love me?” We answer with the protest of St. Peter, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:15). He responds, then feed my lambs. But, Lord, you mean that awful parishioner who wrote that nasty letter about me to the Bishop? Is she Your “lamb”? Is she one of the sheep too? And the Lord, to our chagrin, answers, “Yes and most particularly.” What do we do next? We listen. We return to the Blessed Sacrament and we listen. The Lord is calling us to obedience, to hearken to His voice, a voice found in silence and perhaps even in the complaint of the parishioner.
St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us about obedience, that only the virtue of religion is a more perfect moral virtue. Why? Because obedience unites us more closely to God. Let us delve more deeply into this mystery.
The Angelic Doctor extols obedience because that virtue calls us to perfection by adhering more closely to God’s Will. Et ideo per se loquendo laudabilior est obedientiae virtus, quae propter Deum contemnit propriam voluntatem (“the virtue of obedience is more praiseworthy than other moral virtues, seeing that by obedience a person gives up his own will for God’s sake”) (IIa, IIae, q. 104, a. 3). Here St. Thomas has struck at the heart of the matter. “Do you love me?” This is the optimum question, because if the answer is “yes,” then the consequences are considerable. We must give up our own will for God’s sake. It is not the disgruntled parishioner or the ambiguous superior that poses the issues to us. It is God Himself speaking through these weak instruments, which if He is not willing them directly, He is permitting them. He is asking, “Do you love me?” or better “Do you love me enough?”
A very human reaction to this is protest. “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you” (John 21:16). Did St. Peter know what feeding the sheep would entail? What sacrifices would ensue from the “yes” he had so readily spoken? Embracing the Will of God brings unknown consequences. For this reason, the love must be great.
At this point, the human reacts with another protest. The human says that God is expecting too much of him. “I am too young” (Jeremiah 1:6). But God continues to insist, “Have no fear …, because I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:8).
If we accept the Will of God, then something marvelous happens. We enter real communion with Him, because there is no other Will that matters but the Will of God. In the words of St. Gregory the Great, “Through obedience our wills are sacrificed” (Moralia, 1, XXV, c. 10). We place our will on the altar of our dreams and we burn it with the kindling of our wants and desires. The smoke we smell is what remains of our pretentions, and the ashes we see are the residue of our pride.
One of the most liberating petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is “Thy Will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Ultimately, we must look for God’s Will, through the most challenging moments, the ones over which we have no control, the ones we least understand and appreciate, the ones that challenge us to thank God. Here we find our freedom. We are free to accept because we cannot understand. Somewhere embedded in this perplexing situation is a reason deriving from God’s Will. Is this not the example left us by our Lord Himself? He prays in the Garden, “Father, … not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42). Soon after this act of abandonment in the Gospel, an angel appears to strengthen Him, as His sweat turns to blood (Luke 22:43-44).
Delving more deeply into the pain of suffering, we come to realize gradually that here lies the entry into obedience. This is the obedience of the martyrs. The blood of Steven pours out over the centuries into the lives of Agatha, Thomas More, the Carmelites of Compiègne, the seven Trappists of Atlas Abbey in Algeria, and the Polish Franciscans in Peru. They were accused of being heretics, traitors, fanatics, and imperialists. Their ghastly tortures are repeated into this century, rivaling anything found in the Roman Martyrology. The martyrs are the witnesses to faith in Jesus Christ, a witness only possible because of obedience.
As we enter this challenging era in the history of the Catholic Church, we must be prepared for anything. The world will not sit back idly and be lectured about its disregard for human life or any of its self-absorptions. Even some in the Church are tempted to ignore the continuity of Her constant teaching. And since the Person of Jesus Christ and the dogmas He revealed are not mutually exclusive, when we embrace Him, we embrace what He taught. This is obedience, as well. We must remain faithful to the truth as revealed by Jesus Christ and revisit with our Lord the Garden of Gethsemane. We must open our ears and listen to God. “Through obedience our wills are sacrificed” (St. Gregory the Great, ibid.).