The first reading from today’s Mass is Paul’s farewell speech to the presbyters (priests) of the early Church. Here is a skilled bishop and pastor exhorting others who have pastoral roles within the Church. Let’s take a look at this text and apply its wisdom to Bishops and priests as well as to parents and other leaders in the Church.
Paul’s Farewell Sermon – The scene is Miletus, a town in Asia Minor on the coast not far from Ephesus. Paul, who is about to depart for Jerusalem, summons the presbyters (priests) of the early Church at Ephesus. Paul has ministered there for three years and now summons the priests for this final exhortation. In the sermon, St. Paul cites his own example of having been a zealous teacher of the faith who did not fail to preach the “whole counsel of God.” He did not merely preach what suited him or made him popular; he preached it all. To these early priests, Paul leaves this legacy and would have them follow in his footsteps. Let’s look at excerpts from this final exhortation. First the text, and then some commentary:
From Miletus Paul had the presbyters of the Church at Ephesus summoned. When they came to him, he addressed them, “You know how I lived among you the whole time from the day I first came to the province of Asia. I served the Lord with all humility and with the tears and trials that came to me … and I did not at all shrink from telling you what was for your benefit, or from teaching you in public or in your homes. I earnestly bore witness for both Jews and Greeks to repentance before God and to faith in our Lord Jesus … But now, compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem … But now I know that none of you to whom I preached the kingdom during my travels will ever see my face again. And so I solemnly declare to you this day that I am not responsible for the blood of any of you, for I did not shrink from proclaiming to you the entire plan of God … (Acts 20:1-38 selected).
Here then is the prescription for every Bishop, priest, deacon, catechist, parent, and Catholic: that we should preach the whole counsel (the entire plan of God). It is too easy for us to emphasize only that which pleases us, or makes sense to us, or fits in with our world view. There are some who love the Lord’s sermons on love, but cannot abide his teachings on death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Some love to discuss liturgy and ceremony, but the care of the poor is far from them. Others point to His compassion, but neglect His call to repentance. Some love the way He dispatches the Pharisees and other leaders of the day, but suddenly become deaf when the Lord warns against fornication or insists that we love our spouse, neighbor, and enemy. Some love to focus inwardly and debate over doctrine, but neglect the outward focus of true evangelization to which we are commanded (cf Mat 28:19).
In the Church today, as a whole, we too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines and emphases: life issues here, social justice over there; strong moral preaching here, compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks, the other side says, “There they go again!”
And yet somewhere we must be able to say, with St. Paul, that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy, it must also be true for parents and all who attain any leadership in the Church. All of the issues above are important and must have their proper places in the preaching and witness of every Catholic, both clergy and lay. While we may have gifts to work in certain areas, we should learn to appreciate the whole counsel and the fact that others in the Church may be needed to balance and complete our work. It is true that we must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, but within doctrine’s protective walls it is necessary that we not shrink from proclaiming and appreciating the whole counsel of God.
And if we do this we will suffer. Paul speaks above of tears and trials. In preaching the whole counsel of God (not just your favorite passages or politically correct, “safe” themes), expect to suffer. Expect to not quite fit in with people’s expectations. Jesus got into trouble with just about everyone. He didn’t offend just the elite and powerful. For example, even His own disciples puzzled over His teachings on divorce saying, “If that is the case of man not being able to divorce his wife it is better never to marry!” (Matt 19). Regarding the Eucharist, many left Him and would no longer walk in His company (John 6). When Jesus spoke of His divine origins, many took up stones with which to stone Him, but He passed through their midst (Jn 8). In addition, Jesus spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving your enemies, and preferring nothing to Him. He forbade even lustful thoughts, let alone fornication, and insisted we must learn to curb our unrighteous anger. Yes, preaching the whole counsel of God is guaranteed to earn us the wrath of many.
Sadly, over my years as a priest, I have had to bid farewell to congregations. This farewell speech of Paul is a critical passage whereby I examine my ministry. Did I preach even the difficult stuff? Was I willing to suffer for the truth? Did my people hear from me the whole counsel of God, or just the safe stuff?
How about you? Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are clergy, when you move on; if you are a parent, when your child leaves for college; if you are a Catechist, when the children are ready to be confirmed or have reached college age; if you teach in RCIA, when the time comes for Easter sacraments—can you say you preached it all? God warned Ezekiel that if he failed to warn the sinner, that sinner would surely die for his sins but that Ezekiel himself would be responsible for his death (Ez 3:17 ff). Paul is able to say he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them for he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. How about us?
The whole counsel of God; not just the safe stuff, the popular stuff, not just the stuff that agrees with my politics and those of my friends. The whole counsel, even the difficult stuff, the things that are ridiculed. The Whole Counsel of God.
This video contains the warning to the watchmen (us) in Ezekiel 3. Watch it if you dare.
7 Replies to “Proclaiming the Whole Counsel of God: A Word to Priests and Parents From St. Paul”
Thank the Lord for the apostle Paul. Our Lord Jesus Christ revealed the church of this dispensation of the grace of God [Ephesians 3:2] to him and he passed the doctrines on. He warned that we must “rightly divide the Word of truth” in order to be approved unto God [2 Timothy 2:15]. He also warned Timothy to “preach no other doctrine” than what Timothy had been taught by him.
Grace and Peace to all.
Thank you Msgr. Pope! Your parish is blessed to have you. As a Catechist, this is a much needed reflection. I hope to never fail to proclaim the whole counsel. I always pray for courage, for it is very hard when people are deaf to what you tell them. How do we get past, “Who am I to judge?” Yet tell them we must. I would rather lose friends than the best friend any of us has, our Lord. May God bless you for proclaiming the truth. I learn much from your blog.
You are a true preacher of the Gospel. You continually offer a good example and examination of my conscience. Thank you.
Thank you! Your commentary will today help with a difficult task of humility with a brother Franciscan.
Yes, thank you Msgr. Pope. Another very good article that probably should cause us all to renew our efforts to tell the whole truth.especially when we know our audience does not want to hear what we have to say. One possible approach might be to ask for the graces to ask the properly worded question and then we are just asking a question, knowing they know the only possible correct answer.
A couple of examples that can be improved on: Since we know that God has only one, single, infinite, always in the present tense thought, Word, and we know that God is all-loving, loving all that exists; can we come to any other conclusion except that God eternally loves even those going to hell forever and ever and we should love them as God did on the cross with our prayers and sacrifices offered for them?
or: We know that 2 Thessalonians 2:10 ” for those who are perishing because they have not accepted the love of truth so that they may be saved” and therefore the question arises: What evidence should I be racking up with God to show that I truly have accepted the love of truth that God has offered me and wants me to accept so that I may be saved other than 1. truly wanting to study the Word of God, 2. truly wanting to understand scripture the way God wants it understood, 3.truly wanting to study apologetics so I can be a better witness to my children, friends, enemies, etc, 4 etc.
if we ask the right question, the answer will be intuitive to a casual observer because the Holy Spirit wants to convince them of the truth more than we do and then it is God shouting (a whisper is very loud) in their conscience, not us pointing a finger in their face or doing something that is counterproductive because we do not do it in apparent sacrificial love.
I wish I had a rams horn to blow for every time my children chose to ignore my warnings and the whole counsel. It probably would have had a more memorable affect rather than saying “I told you so.”
As Director of RCIA & and the catechist for our various-age group classes, I, too, reflect often about these words of Paul. In the beginning, I know I didn’t have the spiritual strength or the Catholic history knowledge.. For the last three years, in particular, perhaps due to your good catechesis, I began to embrace teaching the truth. One does not have to stand alone — reading the Church Fathers’ homilies on the gospels alone (Aquinas’ Golden Chain) – and constantly introducing it into the weekly lessons means you don’t have to ‘speak out on your own’ — it’s already been said, written, and taught for centuries. We just need to have the courage to re-state it. Truth is the Truth and needn’t change in order to be ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary.’ Our Lord was no the least concerned about modern or contemporary. His mission was to save souls — first by His words, then by His actions including death on the Cross and Resurrection and Ascension (because where Christ our Head goes, so much the entire Body can go)
I know I will be accountable to God for what I have taught. Or for what I failed to teach.
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