Living By The Church’s Motto, Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time (C), February 4, 2007

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Anthony of Padua Church, New Bedford, MA
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
February 4, 2007
Is 6:1-8; 1Cor 15:1-11; Lk 5:1-11

1) At the beginning of the third Christian millennium, Pope John Paul II wrote a beautiful letter to the members of the Church throughout the world, charting the Church’s path for the 21st century and beyond. In it he focused on an expression from the Gospel which he proposed as a motto for everything we do, everything we are, everything we’re called to be and to accomplish. In order to appreciate what he proposed, we might first pause to think what we would select if we had to choose a motto from the Gospel to inspire the whole Church. I occasionally ask younger people to answer this question. Many of them come up with some good candidates. Some say, “Love one another as I have loved you.” Others suggest, “Come, follow me!” But John Paul II, who knew Sacred Scripture intimately and was well aware of the challenges that confront the Church in our day, chose a passage from today’s Gospel, one that he repeated incessantly from the beginning of the millennium until the day he died: “Duc in altum!,” the Latin words for Christ’s command to Peter and his collaborators: “Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch!” “Duc in altum!” John Paul II was convinced that these words aptly describe the Church’s situation and what needs to be her response. When we examine today’s Gospel more closely, we see why.

2) Early one morning, Jesus was at the shore of the Sea of Galilee, teaching. As more people began to awaken and come down to the shore, the crowd listening to Jesus grew. Jesus asked Simon to borrow his boat so that he might sit a little bit away from the shore to teach the crowds. With the wind coming over his shoulder as a natural amplifier, Jesus nourished the infamished crowd with his words. But it was no coincidence that Jesus was there that morning. It was no coincidence that he asked to borrow Simon’s boat. Jesus had come to do more than teach the crowd. He had come to catch a big fish. He had come to convert and call Simon.

3) After Jesus had finished speaking, he said to Simon Peter, “Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch!” Few statements could have sounded more ridiculous to a fisherman. Simon must have had to control himself from saying something unkind. He was a professional on the Sea of Galilee, and like all the other fishermen, he knew that fish were successfully caught in shallow water at night, not in deep water in broad daylight. It would be as if Jesus said today to a mechanic whose car had just broken down, “Put some antifreeze in the gas tank and turn the ignition.” It made no sense. Moreover, Peter was tired after a long night. He was frustrated that he had nothing to show for hours of hard work. He had just spent time cleaning all of his equipment, to put it away for the day. So in what was probably the nicest way he could, he replied, “Master, we have worked all night but have caught nothing.” He looked into Jesus’ eyes. But Jesus didn’t flinch. “No one had ever spoken like this one,” Peter might have been whispering to himself: “Is it possible that he might know something I don’t about fishing? Probably not, although how can I refuse what he asks for and embarrass him and embarrass myself in front of this entire crowd?” Peter conceded. “At your word, I will let down the nets.” They got into the boats and paddled far away from shore to the deep water. Probably many of those who had listened to Jesus were watching to see how the drama would unfold. We know what happened. Peter and his companions won the fisherman’s equivalent of the megabucks or the Super Bowl, catching so many fish that their nets were about to break and two boats were about to sink. Peter couldn’t help but think, however, that he was unworthy of such a gift from God. Rather than run to Jesus, hug him and thank him, he fell down at Jesus’ knees and begged, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” He was afraid of what this blessing to such a sinner might mean. Jesus spoke right to the heart of Peter, and said, “Do not be afraid!” Then he gave Peter his vocation: “From now on, you will be catching men!” When they had brought their boats to shore, Peter and Andrew, James and John, left everything behind — their boats, their nets, the treasure of fish they had just caught — and followed Jesus.

4) John Paul II proposed Jesus’ imperative “Put out into the deep water” as the motto for our life in the Church in this third millennium because so often we in the Church today can feel that we’re in Peter’s shoes. In many areas of life, but particularly in our discipleship, we can work so hard and seem to have so little to show for it. In our prayer life, we can sometimes think that we’re getting nothing out of it. With our call to spread the Gospel, we can sometimes strive diligently to share our faith with our husband or wife, or with our kids, or with our siblings and friends, or with our co-workers or fellow students — and believe that we’ve made no progress. With regard to the culture that surrounds us, it is not uncommon for people to become exasperated, not knowing even where to begin to help our society become more moral. To each of us in these situations, Jesus says, like he said to Peter, “Put out into the deep water.… Trust in me!” We might think that from a human point of view what Jesus asks us to do makes little or no sense, or would be a waste of time. We can think the odds seem so slim. Doesn’t Jesus say so many things, after all, that fly in the face of the common human way of looking at things: “Happy are the poor in spirit, … the pure of heart, …the peacemakers, … those who mourn, … who hunger for holiness, … who are persecuted.… Unless you pick up your Cross daily and follow me… Heaven rejoices more for one repentant sinner… unless you gnaw on my flesh and drink my blood, … the Son of Man will be handed over, scourged, mocked and crucified, but on the third day will rise…” But to each of these, like Peter, we’re called to say, “Lord, at your word, I will lower the nets,” leave behind the security of the shore and of human wisdom and put out into the deep trusting that all things are possible with God.

5) So the first reason John Paul II proposed “Duc in altum!” as our motto is because it points to a trust in the Lord’s words above every other factor, that even if we were to have all the professors in the world on one side, but Jesus on the other, we should trust Jesus. But that’s not the only reason the Pope selected it. In it, as well, we find very clearly spelled out what our Christian vocation and mission is in the midst of our time. The Lord Jesus calls each of us, as he called Peter and Andrew, James and John, to be a fisher of men, to go out to try to bring other fish into the salvation of Peter’s boat, the Church, in which Christ is still sitting and teaching. Being a fisher of men is not the job only of priests and bishops, or of nuns and catechists and Catholic school teachers, but each of us. It’s our mission as a Christian, flowing from our vocation. It’s not enough for us merely to pray each day. It’s not enough for us faithfully to live by Christ’s commandments and then mind our business. Christ calls us to love our neighbor and the greatest act of love we can do for our neighbor is to bring the neighbor to Christ and bring Christ to our neighbor. Just like in the Gospel, Peter, James, John and Andrew — the soon-to-be apostles — “called to their friends in the other boat to come and help them,” so the successors of St. Peter and the apostles are calling to us, their friends, to come to help them bring more and more fish into Peter’s boat, to share in the task of the new evangelization.

6) Many of us might think we’re unworthy for such a task, that the Lord couldn’t possibly be calling you or me. But the readings today are a very strong rejection of that line of thought. In the first reading, Isaiah was awed at God’s majesty and holiness, as he beheld in a vision seraphs singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Isaiah was well aware of his sinfulness and thought he was unfit to be in the presence of such holiness. “Woe is me! I’m lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.” But God fixed that problem, sending a seraph to cleanse his mouth, take away his guilt and blot out his sin so that he could use that mouth to spread God’s word. In the Gospel, faced with the Lord Jesus’ majesty in the working of the miracle, Peter exclaimed, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” but the Lord told him not to be afraid, because the Lord had come to the seashore precisely to call that sinner to himself and then to send him out to call other sinners to repentance. The story of St. Paul from the second reading is perhaps the most powerful. He used to hunt down, torture and kill Christians for a living. If anyone was unworthy to carry out the task of preaching the Good News, it was this man, who had tried to extinguish it. But the Lord met him on the road to Damascus and purified him so that he might be his chosen vessel to take the Gospel to the nations. St. Paul says today, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain.” He passed on to us as of primary importance the Gospel he himself received and even used his past sinfulness as a motivation: “I worked harder than any of them,” because he had been forgiven even more.

7) Faced with their callings, none of us has any room to hide. Today, as in the time of Isaiah, and Peter and Paul, the Lord says, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” We’re called, like Isaiah, to say, “Here I am, Lord!” We cannot pass the buck to the person sitting next to us on the pew, or to the priest at the pulpit, or to Catholic school teachers or catechists. Each is us is called — without exception — to answer personally, “Send ME.” We’re called, like Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave behind whatever might keep us from the Lord and follow him, being sent out into the deep water of the world to fish for souls. We’re called, like St. Paul, to “work harder than any” of the rest in passing on to others as of first importance the Gospel we have received, because of the Lord’s great mercy, love and trust in calling us and sending us by our baptism and confirmation.

8 ) Today, at this Mass, Jesus has gotten into Peter’s boat, the Church, again. He has taught us, the crowds, from the pulpit. He knows how hard we’ve been working, but he tells us to trust in him as he sends us out again, when we least expect it, to where we least expect it. To strengthen us for this mission, he is about to feed us with his body and blood. What Isaiah witnessed in his vision is about to be fulfilled, when all the seraphim, cherubim and angels will surround this altar as we join in their unending hymn to the King, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty. Heaven and Earth are full of your glory.” The Lord whom we’re about to receive is thrice holy and wants to make us holy so that he can send us out with the instructions — Duc in Altum! — to the seas of New Bedford and the whole world. The only fitting response is to make Isaiah’s words our own, “Here I am, Lord. Send me! At your word, I will lower the nets for a catch!”