The following is a true story about Pope John Paul II:
A priest from the Archdiocese of New York was visiting Rome. As he was walking into a church to pray, he noticed a beggar sitting at the front door—not an unusual sight in Rome. But something about this particular beggar bothered him. He didn’t figure it out until he began to pray: he suddenly realized that he knew the man from his days in the seminary.
He immediately went back outside and said to him, "Excuse me, do I know you?" Sure enough, the beggar had been in the seminary with him many years earlier. He had been ordained a priest, but had [in his words] "crashed and burned" in his vocation.
The priest from New York was understandably shaken up when he left the beggar a few minutes later.
That afternoon he was at the Vatican, and had the opportunity to meet the pope and speak with him. He said to him, "Please, Holy Father, pray for this particular man. I went to seminary with him, and he’s now a beggar on the streets of Rome. Please pray for him, because he’s lost."
The Holy Father instructed the priest to go back to the beggar.
He found him—once again—in front of the church, and he said to him, "I have an invitation for the two of us to have dinner with the pope tonight." The beggar said, "No, I can’t." The priest responded, "You’d better, because I’m not going to have dinner with the pope any other way."
So the priest took the beggar to his room, where he provided him with a razor, a much-needed shower, and some clean clothes.
Then they went to dinner. About an hour into the meal, the Holy Father asked the priest from New York to leave the room. He then said to the beggar, "Would you hear my Confession?" The beggar said, "I’m not a priest anymore." The pope replied, "Once a priest, always a priest." The beggar said, "But I’m not in good standing with the Church." The pope shot back, "I’m the pope. I’m the bishop of Rome. I can re-instate you now."
The beggar agreed, and Pope John Paul II proceeded to confess his sins.
The beggar-priest barely got the words of absolution out of his mouth before he dropped to his knees and tearfully asked, "Holy Father, will you please hear my Confession?" He confessed, and was restored to good graces with our Lord and the Church.
The Holy Father then invited the New York priest back into the room, and he asked him at what church he had found the beggar. The priest told him. The pope then said to the beggar-priest, "For your first assignment, I want you to go to the pastor there and report for duty, because you’ll be an associate at that parish with a special outreach to the beggars in that area."
And that’s where he is today, serving God and the poor as a priest.
Life is full of ups and downs, twists and turns, pleasant highways and bumpy roads. And because of the many trials and temptations we face, it’s relatively easy to get off-track—even when it comes to your vocation. Something got this priest off-track—we’re not sure what it was, but obviously something caused him to "crash and burn," as he put it; husbands and wives sometimes get off-track in their relationships with one another, or in their relationships with their children; young people easily get off-track in their relationships with their parents; teens sometimes get "off track" by getting into drugs or alcohol or violence or sexually promiscuous behavior.
To be "on-track" is to be doing God’s will in your life; to be "off-track" is to be doing your own.
The 4 men we heard about in today’s Gospel story—Peter, Andrew, James and John—got on-track with Jesus by saying "yes" to the Lord’s call. They left their fishing business—and their old way of life—and began to follow Christ as his apostles. And, for the most part, they stayed on-track, although they had many temptations to get off-track. One of the biggest occurred at the end of John 6. Jesus had just given a magnificent sermon on the Holy Eucharist. He told the crowds that he intended to give them his flesh and blood to be their spiritual food and drink. They responded by "freaking out"—to use the colloquial expression. And the Bible tells us that many of our Lord’s disciples left him at that moment—people who had been following him for a long time. They walked away, saying, "This sort of talk is hard to endure. Who can take it seriously?" Jesus then turned to his apostles (realizing that they were facing the same temptation), and he said, "Do you want to leave me too?" Peter responded, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life." That kept them all on-track, at least for the time being.
From these apostles I would say we can learn 3 lessons for our own lives: we can learn how to get on-track, how to stay on-track, and what to do if we get off-track for whatever reason.
To get on-track—in other words, to discern what God wants you to do in this life—you must develop a personal relationship with Jesus, as they did. (I don’t presume that every Catholic has a personal relationship with Jesus—although every Catholic should!) In today’s Gospel, we hear how the apostles were called by our Lord and how they immediately dropped everything to follow him. That may seem a bit far-fetched, until you realize that this was probably not the first time these men had encountered Jesus. If you read John’s Gospel, it seems they had already met our Lord at least once. So a personal relationship with Jesus had already begun for these men, such that when he called them in today’s story, they responded without hesitation. Based on their previous encounter, they understood that Jesus was anointed of God and worthy of their trust and obedience.
We encounter Jesus in many ways, but most of all through prayer and the sacraments. Consequently, if we want to be like these apostles by getting and staying on track, then prayer and the sacraments—especially Eucharist and Confession—need to be at the center of our lives.
I think it’s safe to say that from this moment when they left their fishing business until the end of their lives, Peter, Andrew, James and John didn’t make any major decision without consulting Jesus—that’s how deep their personal relationships with Jesus were! How do you make important decisions in your life? How do you decide the right thing to do? Do you make an effort to consult Jesus? Do you take it to prayer and get spiritual direction when necessary? Or do you do what "feels" right? Or what the majority tells you to do? If you think you’re called to marriage, for example, have you asked Jesus to bring the right person into your life—the person he knows you should marry? I hope you have, because if you haven’t it’s highly likely you’ll get somebody else!
And here’s something else we learn from the apostles about staying on-track: get the right friends! The apostles had each other; the beggar priest in Rome had his old classmate from the seminary who cared enough about him to speak to the pope about his situation, and he had the pope himself who reached out to him in his need. Whom do you have? What are your friends like? Friends can either get you off-track and keep you there, or they can help get you on-track and motivate you to stay there. St. Paul once said, "Bad company corrupts good morals." If that’s true (and it is), then the opposite is also true: Good company inspires good morals.
And what do you do when you get off-track?—when you get de-railed? You do what the apostles did on Easter after their Holy Week "derailment"—you go back to Jesus! You don’t listen to Satan by giving up hope and staying away! Peter, for example, who had denied Jesus 3 times, professed his love for Jesus 3 times when the Lord appeared to him at the Sea of Galilee. The Lord is not likely to appear to us in that same fashion, but he doesn’t have to! He is just as present to us in the sacrament of Confession, where he absolves us through the priest who acts in his person. Sin de-rails us, but Confession re-rails us. When the de-railed beggar-priest went to Confession to the Holy Father, he was immediately put back on-track. And so it can be for us.