by Jeff Hensley
As he walked to the pulpit, the visiting priests gait was slow, consistent with his 80-some years. His voice, once he began telling us about himself, was somewhat high- pitched and scratchy with age — and surprisingly appealing. His white hair, grown long and curly, swept back from his high African-American forehead, giving him the look of a patriarch depicted on a holy card.
The priest, a member of the Society of the Divine Word, had spent 50 years in mission work, after first having been refused entrance to the seminary by his bishop and several seminaries on the basis of his “poor health.” A bad call on their part. Finally, he applied to the seminary for the Society of the Divine Word, a religious order founded by a sickly priest, he told us. “They had to take me,” he quipped, to laughter.
For 50 years, he had been bringing the good news, “the Gospel,” he intoned brightly, to add emphasis, to people around the world.
He had, in the procession of the years, been poured out like a libation to the Lord in the service of the Gospel. And, like Paul, he could well say he had competed well, he had finished the race. But instead he read the story of the prodigal son with dramatic emphasis, composed of pauses, changes of pitch and rhythm that communicated nuances one might never have thought of, as though it had just happened and he was conveying with wonder the forgiveness of the father.
As Jesus’ parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and the tax collector shows us in this week’s readings, this Divine Word priest let us know that Jesus came for sinners, not the self- righteous. He told us with such conviction and passion that one couldn’t help but believe that Jesus was the source of compassion for the fallen that we’ve always known him to be.
Then, to make sure we put feet under our own compassion, he appealed to us to help rebuild a new church in Swaziland in such a way that we felt personally connected to their need.
He was, after all, making a missionary appeal. And the church is, after all, composed of brothers and sisters of the same Father.