Today Jesus greets us in the gospel riding in on an ass. In graduate school a professor posited that the symbol of this is a contrast of the Romans in authority riding in on majestic chariots and horses while the King of Kings comes in on a simple donkey without need for fanfare. He went on to say that because the people praised him with “hosannas” this “made an ass out of the Romans.”
It reminds me of my first pastor in the parish where I grew up. Msgr. Cajetan J. Troy, a delightful man, who led our parish with great care, was a man I truly respected. He always had time for us kids and he delighted in the parish events. At the church bazaar he’d play all the games and give kids his own money so they could play too and have Zeppole dust all over his clerical shirt. He had a heart for the poor inviting the downtrodden into the rectory for a sandwich and they’d respond by insisting that they sweep the front steps of the church for him.
One day Msgr. Troy looked tired and upset. He entered the sacristy from the rectory for mass and I was there waiting to serve mass with him. He gave me his usual greeting–a punch in the arm—a playful one–just enough to glance my bicep. Then he said, “Sit with me for a few minutes.”
So I did. He said, “Michael, I have a feeling that you’re going to be a priest one day–or at least be very involved in the church if you get married instead. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret that all pastors have to know about parish life and what all good parishioners need to know as well.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“Every parish has at least 20 of what I call ‘Church Jackasses.'”
He then began to name the church jackasses in our parish. They were all the folks who ran ministries and groups and really kept the parish afloat financially.
I laughed and shook my head. Thinking he just had a bad day and needed to vent. So much for the wisdom that I was hoping for.
But he stopped abruptly and said, “Now Michael, I’m serious. Because you see Jackasses are very useful animals. But you have to be able to identify the best ones and work with them and then the others will get in line.”
I didn’t understand.
He said, “Well, some jackasses buck. They make a mess of things and they turn the entire place upside down, often for no reason. They just can’t keep still and they always seem angry.”
I nodded. “I know a few people like that.”
“Now you’re catching on, Michael” the old priest said.
“Now some other Jackasses go round and round in circles. Never seeming to get anywhere. They almost seem like they can’t do anything because they’re stuck in the same old pattern.”
I nodded again, “Sure some people say things like ‘Well, we’ve always done it this way.'”
“Exactly, they don’t help matters they just keep the parish exactly where it is and it never gets anywhere.”
“But Michael, then there are some Jackasses who are able to be calm and they walk in a straight line and are able to pull plows and actually get the work in the field done. Those are the best jackasses and they are worth everything.”
I smiled and said I got it.
“Now wait!” Msgr yelled. “I’m not finished. Most of the time those jackasses can calm the other ones down if they have a good farmer who keeps them calm but sometimes those good jackasses get all riled up by those others groups and end up bucking or going around in circles.”
I thought deeply, “You’re right!” I said. So how do we keep the good jackasses walking in the straight line so that the work can be done?”
“Smart boy.” he said to me. “You spend more time with them and care for them and then they trust you. You make sure their needs are cared for so they can concentrate on the work of the field and that they are well fed. Then those others want to be well fed and cared for and they start coming over and calming down and before you know it. Nobody’s bucking and nobody’s walking around aimlessly. Everyone’s walking together and getting the work done.”
“You see a pastor’s job is to care for people, to give them all of himself. To let them know that they are cared for and that they are valuable and that he has time for them. Pastors appreciate people and most importantly, a pastor is a calming presence in the parish when everyone else is bucking and circling. So they need to find people who are also calm and logical, who keep their wits about themselves and don’t fly off the handle. They’ll keep everyone else in line.”
Great wisdom, wisdom our church can use today nearly 30 years later, when we in the church can seem quite divided at times.
But together we need to calmly walk that same straight line to Calvary where we meet Jesus. And along the way we might buck or go round and round in unhealthy patterns. But nonetheless we meet Jesus who is the pastor who leads us to serenity where he offers us all that he is and it is always more than enough.
Today, as Jesus takes those first steps to his cross on the backs of all of us jackasses, may he find that we too are willing to go to the cross. To suffer for others and to give all that we have for those who need us. The poor, the homeless, the unborn, the aging, the children who get bullied, those who seek our assistance.
Ride on little donkeys! Ride to Jerusalem–dare to carry Jesus to Jerusalem and share in his suffering. But know that others will probably call you a jackass if you do.
And that is all you ever will need to become.