The first reading from Tuesday’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 examine 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 of the early Church at Ephesus. He 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 some excerpts from this final exhortation.
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 20:17-27 selected).
Here, then, is the prescription for every bishop, priest, deacon, catechist, parent, and Catholic: 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 doctrine but neglect the outward focus of true evangelization to which we are commanded (cf Mat 28:19).
In the Church today, we too easily divide out rather predictably along certain lines and emphases: life issues here and social justice over there, strong moral preaching here and compassionate inclusiveness over there. When one side speaks, the other side says, “There they go again!”
We must be able to say, like St. Paul, that we did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. While this is especially incumbent on the clergy, it is also the responsibility of parents and all who attain any leadership in the Church. All 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 particular 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. While we must exclude notions that stray from revealed doctrine, within doctrine’s protective walls it is necessary that we not shrink from proclaiming and appreciating the whole counsel of God.
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) As a result of Jesus’ teaching on 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 unharmed (Jn 8). In addition, Jesus spoke of taking up crosses, forgiving one’s enemies, and preferring nothing to Him. He forbade even lustful thoughts, let alone fornication, and insisted we 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 many congregations. This farewell speech of Paul is a critical one I use to examine my ministry. Did I preach even the difficult things? Was I willing to suffer for the truth? Did my people hear from me the whole counsel of God or just what was “safe”?
What about you? Have you proclaimed the whole counsel of God? If you are a clergyman, when you move on; if you are a parent, when your child leaves for college; if you are a youth catechist, when the children are ready to be confirmed; 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 can truthfully say that he is not responsible for the death (the blood) of any of them because he did not shrink from proclaiming the whole counsel of God. What about us?
We must proclaim the whole counsel of God, not just the safe or popular things, not just what agrees with our own politics or those of our friends. We must present the whole counsel, even the hard parts, even the things that are ridiculed. Yes, we must proclaim the whole counsel of God.