A few weeks before I was ordained, a reporter from The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the archdiocese, contacted me. They were speaking to each member of our class about our upcoming ordination, and the questions where what you’d expect: who is your biggest influence, how did you become a priest, what are you looking forward to.
There were a few people I talked about that day.
When asked who my heroes were, I said my parents. I was recently looking at some photos of my parents big move in the summer of 1978 a family friend posted online, as he helped them move that day. At the time they were in their early 20s, and were moving into our home on the north side of Minneapolis. That home has a lot of memories, and they worked so hard to create them. Ever since I’ve known them, I’ve known two hard-working people who sacrificed so much for their family, who lived out their faith daily, and who have been a constant beacon to me of how to walk through life. Through how they have lived, I have learned how to live too, and through their encouragement I have been able to discern what God wanted me to do with my life.
The other person I mentioned that day was a man you might know, Fr. Vince Colon. Fr. Vince was the pastor at Our Lady of Victory when I was there from the fourth through the eighth grade. I really have no idea how the idea came into my head, but I remember asking my grandma one day about alter boys, and she said there had not been any at Our Lady of Victory in a few years since Fr. Colon had been there. Now as a priest I have to tell you, as much as I love working with altar servers, I can kind of get not having them too, especially at a smaller parish. It can be easier to just work with the “grown ups,” and indeed there was an older man, Andy, who was present at most Masses. But something got into this introvert in sixth grade, and I walked over to the rectory one day after school. They have an office in the front part of it, and Fr. Vince came to the door. I explained to him that I had an interest in serving at Mass. Now he could have easily said “that’s very nice, what’s your name? Paul, well Paul, that’s nice but we just don’t do that here. Have a nice day.” But, he didn’t. He invited me to serve, and showed me the ropes. He was patient with me as I tried to figure things out like how to hold the book and at what angle, and when to go down to get the gifts. It’s still a little nervous being in front of people but it was even more so as a 12-year old. It was an honor to have Fr. Vince be at my first Mass at that same church years down the road.
This week’s Gospel has Jesus meeting Peter and Andrew, where we hear that famous line “come after me and I will make you fishers of men.” Peter and Andrew form the early Church, and after Jesus ascends to heaven, they will be doing just that through their evangelization and their action. That same commission is give to us too.
Over the course of our lives, there are so many chances we have to be a true fisher of men.
It starts in our families. As I remind couples at baptism classes, they are not perfect. They inevitably let their kids down at times; they make mistakes. But when you add up a life, what’s clear is that parents and also grandparents and other family do so much to help their kids find the right path in life, and to develop their own relationship with God. Never forget the gift of time, of being present to family and listening to them, of making Mass a family priority, of doing acts of charity, of being a hard worker, of patience and showing love and respect towards one another, and so many other things that happen in families are teaching moments. My parents encouraged me to follow my dreams and told me they’d always support me, but they also challenged me to grow in my faith, to work hard, and to persevere. Vatican II reminded us that parents were the primary people to pass on the faith – so never forget being a fisher of men starts at home.
But also, never forget, God gives us all many opportunities over the course of our lives to help others see His face and hear His voice. For me, it was a September afternoon in 1989 when a kindly priest decided it would be just fine to have an altar server. True evangelization happens in ways that will surprise us. Through acts of kindness, of patience, of listening to people, through doing charity, this is how people come to the faith.
And lastly, never fear talking about your faith too. My parents explained our faith to me, but they also helped me to lead a better life. Fr. Vince didn’t just say “there are the altar servers vestments” and then start Mass, he explained things to me carefully and let me know if there was something that I should change. Actions are important, but so too is being an apologist or explainer of what it means to be a Catholic. So take the time to talk about why we go to Mass with your kids and what happens; invite people to come to church with you; and with others who may not go to Mass too often or be away from the Church, talk to them about the faith and what you get out of it. You may not find an instant convert, but over time, you might be amazed at how the faith grows in people. In fact, a great guy I worked with in another parish once shared with me how he and his wife have converted several Mormons. Pretty impressive. These were people who just came to their door, and rather than hide behind the shades or not come to the door, they invited them in, had a conversation, talked about what they believe as Catholics, then followed up with them and now, our Church is bigger because of this amazing husband and wife who are true fishers of people.
I spent 3 hours in a fishing boat once, and that was enough fishing for me for a lifetime. But the rest of my life as a Catholic, I know God has given me a job to be a fisher of people, to evangelize, and build up His Church. That stems not just from my sacramental priesthood, but from my baptism and confirmation. You have that same job. I caught no fish when I went fishing for the first time as a transitional deacon with a parishioner in the summer of 2006, but my hope is that as my life goes on, I will catch people and bring them to the Lord. So join me in that mission – odds are we might not always see the catch, but when we are together in God’s Kingdom, we’ll find a lot of people are there because of our perseverance.