Giles Orton celebrates St Vincent de Paul through priestly and episcopal ministry
The harvest is plenty, but the labourers are few. How many of us have even noticed that the harvest has been happening this month?
I happen to live in the countryside, right next to a very large field. I vaguely noticed as it developed from the first green shoots of spring to golden ears of grain. Then I went out one afternoon last week, came back a couple of hours later, and it was gone, razed to stubble. Many acres had been harvested in a couple of hours, and the one man in huge combine harvester was by then just to be seen getting on with the next field over the road.
I would suspect that for many of us, harvest today is something we barely notice – we pretty much take it for granted. If we venture into the countryside we may see crops growing in the fields, but do we actually connect that sight with the products we see on our supermarket shelves – for example, the three Weetabix that I tell my servers they need to eat every day to keep their strength up, especially if they are going to attempt to carry the heavy processional cross. But when buying our Weetabix, or our loaves of bread, I imagine many of us scarcely give a thought to the effort that went into growing and then harvesting the crops from which they were made. That is probably unsurprising in these days of mechanisation, and of worldwide supply chains whereby if our crop here fails we can always ship in food from elsewhere.
But for our ancestors, and for Jesus’s audience in 1st-century Judaea, things would have been different. Firstly, without mechanisation, harvest was exceptionally hard work. Once the crop was ready it needed to be gathered in. But it had to be gathered in dry – too wet going into the granary and it would start to germinate and not last. So when the weather offered suitable conditions for harvest it had to be done as quickly as possible, which meant summoning as many men as possible for the backbreaking work of reaping, gathering, carrying, threshing and then carrying again into store.
Without enough men ready and able for this work, then the crop might not be gathered in in time and might well go to waste. And if one could not get enough labourers there was no quick issuing of visas and work permits to fly others in from Eastern Europe, so without the labourers the crop might go to waste, and that could well lead to famine, and with no flying in emergency supplies either, that could lead to the people suffering and starving.
So when Jesus used as his example, “The harvest is plenty but the labourers are few” his audience would have understood the message in two ways that we today might perhaps fail fully to appreciate. Firstly, harvest labourers had a hard task that was physically very demanding. And secondly, they had a task that was hugely important, failure to gather in the harvest would threaten the very lives, the very existence of the people.
So today’s gospel reminds us that this is an occasion to celebrate the work of God’s labourers, God’s priests. Whilst we are of course here because of the 40th Anniversary of the ordination of one priest in particular, as far as the church calendar is concerned this is the memorial for St Vincent de Paul, a great French priest of the early 17th century, born of a Gascon peasant family, ordained at the age of 19, and who went on to serve in Paris to great effect. He moved easily among the rich and famous, but was ever passionately raising money for and putting effort into the poor, such that after his canonisation he was declared patron saint of all charities.
So we have in St Vincent de Paul a wonderful example, and as our Gospel today reminds us, this is a fitting occasion to give thanks not just for his example but for that of all other priests known to us who have laboured to bring in God’s harvest.
Priesthood is of course a great joy and privilege. Above all being able to celebrate the mass, to make present the body and blood of Christ, though there are also the happy times sharing in the joys of our people. But as we look at the examples Christ gave of his priesthood, the labourer hard at work in the field, the good shepherd trekking across the lonely hill at night looking for the missing sheep, the suffering servant foretold by Isaiah, we know that priesthood comes with its challenges, most often when we are called to share in the suffering of the dying and bereaved, great privilege that that can be.
I was warned before I was ordained that there would be good times but there would also be hard times; there would be painful times when it would feel like one was being hung up on the cross oneself. And, what is more, I was told, when it feels like there are people who are hammering nails through your hands and feet, those will not be the people who walk past outside your church and ignore it; no, I was told, the greatest hurt is likely to come from others within. Sadly, that seems all too true of our church today. One only has to read the press reports of the problems of safeguarding, terrible things done within the church in the past no doubt, but then today the most awful injustices being done in the name of safeguarding, as if the problems of the past justify a total loss of sight of basic principles of justice and fairness. The papers have sadly been full of too many reports of this sort of thing. I suspect some of us will be aware of examples closer to home, but I think in particular of the case of Canon Alan Griffin, rest his soul, who was driven to suicide after twelve months of unexplained allegations, which, proved, all too late, to have been mere gossip and without foundation.
It seems that the Church has much to do to restore balance in this very difficult area, and if, as we are told, the labourers are few, then the first and most obvious step is to nurture and assist those we already have in order to get the best from them. We owe a particular debt to those who, after many years of stipendiary ministry, are happy to continue labouring in their supposed retirement. Yet for these, the issuing of Permissions to Officiate seems to be made ever more onerous.
And a further area where there is of course work to be done is in the essential task of finding more labourers for the harvest field. More priests. This is especially true for churches like ours. Our diocese is currently promulgating a vision, driven perhaps not such much by a blinding light on the road to Chesterfield, as by a glimpse of the diocesan balance sheet and the damage done by the pandemic, that sees us all managing with ever fewer clergy and more and more done by the laity. Now I would make clear that in principle I entirely agree with that, we cannot afford as many clergy and many things are put upon them that do not need to be done by ordained clergy. There is much that the laity could do, often perhaps better than the clergy.
However, in our Catholic tradition much more than others, we do need ordained clergy to celebrate the sacraments, not least the mass. So we do need to be redoubling our efforts to find the priests for the future. This crucial task of finding more labourers for the harvest cannot be left to others; we all need to play a part, both in prayer and in actively looking out for and then encouraging possible recruits.
And I would suggest that our New Testament lesson offers some useful guidance in that direction, when St Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish by human reckoning…those whom the world thinks common and contemptible are the ones God has chosen.” This rather reminds me of St Jean Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, bottom of the class at college, so sent out to a remote and unimportant village of about 250 souls, where in his 42-year ministry he gained remarkable fame as a wise counsellor and confessor, attracting up to 20,000 visitors a year.
There is a danger, when we look at men and wonder whether they might make a priest, that we compare them in their young raw untrained unpractised state with the great saints, or with the priests of many decades’ experience whom we respect so much. When looking for potential ordinands we need to think not so much of what they are now, but of what they could become, by the grace of the Holy Spirit and with training and with practice and with the experience that the years will bring.
So we know that we need more labourers for the harvest. Let us give thanks for the labourers that we have, especially for those who have laboured hard and well for many long and faithful years, let us give thanks for their examples and look after them well.
And let us also look for the next set of labourers who, by the grace of the God who may well chose those who are foolish by human reckoning, might come to be the next generation of priests in our churches.
The harvest is plenty but the labourers are few.
O Lord, send us the labourers for your harvest.
Preached by Fr Giles Orton SSC at St Anne’s Derby on 27 September for the 40th anniversary of Bishop Roger Jupp’s ordination to the priesthood. New Directions sends Bishop Roger congratulations on his milestone.