St. Jerome was a very holy and intelligent priest. He was good in languages, rhetoric, philosophy and theology. He was secretary to Pope Damasus who suggested to Jerome to translate the entire Bible to Latin from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. St. Jerome spent many years in Jerusalem translating the Bible to Latin (called the Vulgate). Some sources say it took him 23 years to complete, while others say it took him 40 years to complete. He finished this project a few days before Christmas. As a way of celebrating this great accomplishment, he decided to spend Christmas Eve in Bethlehem in a grotto. There Jesus appeared to him and said, “Jerome, what will you give me for my birthday?” Jerome cheerfully replied, “Lord, I give you my translation of your word.” But Jesus replied, “No, that is not what I want.” Jerome then challenged the response from Jesus wondering why Jesus allowed him to be away from his home for many years working hard on what Jesus would not appreciate. Jesus was silent in response to this. So, Jerome began to make other suggestions, he asked if as a way of honoring the birthday of Jesus, he could fast, become a hermit and give his possessions to the poor. But Jesus said, “No, Jerome. That is not what I want the most.” Finally, Jerome made his submission, “Then you tell me, Lord. Tell me what would give you the most joy on your birthday, and you shall have it.” Jesus replied, “Do you promise, Jerome?” “Yes, Lord, anything at all,” said Jerome. Then Jesus said, “Give me your sins…”
But come to think of it, is that not why Jesus came to this world after all? Did he not come to make something beautiful out of broken humanity? Did he not come to mingle with sinners so as to make saints out of them and present them to his Father in heaven? For where does the physician get his/her fulfilment? Is it not in your coming to him/her with your illnesses and receiving a cure? What gives the mechanic joy and fulfillment? Is it your brand new car or your broken car that he is able to fix for you? Similarly, Jesus sits at the confessional every day waiting for us to come with our sins so that he may clean us up. That is the only gift we can truly give him that we did not first get from him. Jerome wanted to offer his gifts of translation and possessions, but Jesus would not take those because he got them from God. All he could truly offer were his sins.
Many times, people run away from God, people run away from the Church because they feel that they are not worthy. Some would not take up any ministry in the Church because they feel they are sinners. They fail to realize that the Church is that institution where you have to be unworthy in order to be a member. Shortly before the reception of Holy Communion, we all paraphrase the words of the centurion “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” (Cf. Luke 7:6). If you are in the Church and you think you are worthy or perfect, know that today is your day of graduation, come get your certificate and get out of this place. For “the Church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”
In the call of Isaiah in the first reading, Isaiah thought it was about his abilities, and so he complained to God, “…I am a man of unclean lips…” Looking at how he admitted his unworthiness, God sent an angel to clean him up. Isaiah then presented himself to God saying, “Here I am…send me!” In the second reading, Paul admitted the fact that it is only by the grace of God that he is numbered among the apostles. Similarly, when Peter got to know more about Jesus in today’s Gospel passage, he said to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” But Jesus replied, “Do not be afraid [it is people like you that I need for this job]; from now on you will be catching men.”
One thing that stands out as common to Isaiah, Paul and Peter today is that they each realized their unworthiness when they found themselves in the presence of God. Isaiah had his realization while he was in the temple. Paul thought he was the “best guy in town” until Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus when he realized how far away he was from perfection. It was when Jesus got into Simon Peter’s boat that Peter got to see his sinfulness. It is like our relationship with light. The closer we get to the source of light, the easier it is to notice the imperfections about us- the pimples, the eczema, the wrinkles, the stains on our shirt, etc. It is also like height. When I celebrate Mass with little children, I know they look at me and believe that “Father is very tall,” but when they find me standing next to a really tall person, they must be wondering, “Hmmm, it seems Father stopped growing too soon.” When people brag about being holy or perfect, I always say that it depends on their point of reference. If you are standing next to the devil, then you may appear very holy, but if you are standing next to God, then you can clearly see that you have a long way to go.
During one of my recent post-ordination studies, I was in the same class with two Chaldean Catholic Seminarians. They came up to me one day and said, “Father, we have been approved for ordination, but we are scared, we feel very inadequate and empty. When we think of the caliber of people we are going to minister to and the holiness of the priesthood, we feel like telling the Bishop to give us more time.” They added, “Father, having spent about ten years in the priesthood, at what point do you think we can become self-confident?” I looked at them with admiration, I smiled and said, “My brothers, since you have come to realize how unworthy and inadequate you are to become priests, I say, ‘congratulations! You are now ready for ordination!” They were ordained Chaldean Catholic Priests about three years ago and I am very proud of what God is doing through them. It is easier for God to work with a priest who is conscious of his unworthiness than one who thinks he is perfect. A priest who is full of himself and sees himself as “Mr. Know It All” has no space for God to work through him. What keeps me going is my daily realization that it is not about what I am doing but what the grace of God is doing in me. My dearly beloved in Christ, what is the next bold step you are afraid of taking? What is that ministry in the Church you are afraid of embracing? What is that risk you are afraid of taking to make the world a better place? What is that project you are afraid of embarking on? Jesus tells you today like he told Peter, “Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” It is not about what you can do but what you will allow God to do through you. Do not be hindered by your past failures. Remember that God does not call the qualified, rather, he qualifies those he calls. God is not asking for your ability, but for your availability, and so, our best disposition must be, “Here I am, Lord, send me!”