Over the last few weeks, we’ve been hearing a series of parables in Matthew’s gospel, describing what the kingdom of heaven is like—everything from a mustard seed to a treasure buried in a field.
But this parable we hear today takes a different direction. We hear mention of a “pearl of great price” and it’s natural to think: okay, so the kingdom is like a pearl.
But listen again: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls.”
It is about the search. In fact, it is about the merchant doing the searching.
It is about a quest for something more precious, more valuable, more meaningful, more life changing than we can fathom.
This parable is about the Christian’s search for meaning, our quest for God’s will in our lives. Find that, and you have found a “pearl of great price.”
As Rick Warren might put it, this is a parable about finding the “purpose-driven life.”
It is, really, about discovering our vocation.
That is the pearl we all seek.
And, like all pearls, it may begin as sand.
Here in the parish, we’re in the middle of our annual St. John Vianney novena for vocations—praying for vocations to the priesthood. You’ve probably all heard the story of St. John Vianney—a humble priest who transformed a tiny parish in rural France into a flourishing center of spiritual renewal in the 19th century. His reputation for mercy and holiness was legendary. People flocked there from around the world so he could hear their confession. He sometimes spent 12, 13, 14 hours a day or more in the confessional. When he died, in 1859, a bishop celebrated his funeral mass, with 300 priests concelebrating and 6,000 people in attendance. He’s now the patron saint of parish priests.
All that is fairly well-known.
Less well-known is how his vocation journey began. It is a journey that speaks to each of us, especially now.
John Vianney, you see, grew up during a time of Catholic persecution in France. People often attended Mass in secret. His parents traveled miles to a distant farm to attend Mass, even though it was illegal. The priests who said Mass were literally running for their lives—and young John Vianney looked up to them as heroes. In time, he received instruction in his First Communion from two nuns whose communities had been dissolved during the French Revolution.
He finally made his First Communion at the age of 13, in a small room where the windows were covered so that no one outside could see the light from the candles on the altar.
From that grew a deep love of the Lord, and a desire to do something heroic with his life.
But by all accounts, he wasn’t anyone’s idea of a great hero. As a young man, he was drafted into the army. While heading off to training, he stopped in a local church to pray. But he lost track of time. The other soldiers left without him. When he asked someone for directions, how to find the soldiers, he was taken, instead, to a farm where the owners were hiding deserters. Terrified of what would happen to him, he ended up living there for over a year, even changing his name. When the local police came looking for deserters, he hid in the barn under piles of hay.
Young John Vianney also wasn’t anyone’s idea of a great scholar. After the war, he entered the seminary—but studies were a struggle. He failed classes. He was only ordained because one of his superiors, his mentor, thought his piety compensated for his ignorance.
After ordination, when he was assigned to a tiny parish in Ars, with barely 200 people, he set out to begin his assignment but got lost along the way. A couple farmers pointed him in the right direction.
The rest, as they say, is history.
John Vianney’s life, I think, reminds us that sometimes the most unlikely people can change the world. Saints can come from anywhere.
And out of the smallest and most insignificant grains of sand, God can make a pearl.
He did that with a humble and holy man from Ars. He can do it with each of us.
What is God calling you to do with your life?
I found myself asking that same question, at a moment in my life when I thought I knew. I was wrong. And I realized I was wrong because I wasn’t asking the right question. I had spent the first 40 years of my life asking, “What would make me happy?”
I needed to ask, “What would make God happy?” How does he want to use me?
And here I am.
Is he calling you or someone you know to the priesthood, diaconate or religious life? If no one ever asked you that question before, consider this an open invitation. Very often what we are seeking is in our hearts, just waiting to be found.
Very often what we are seeking is ourselves—our truest selves, what God dreams we will become.
A proverb in Shakespeare tells us, “The world is my oyster.”
Yes, it is.
But remember the life of St. John Vianney. Remember his surprising and unexpected journey and how it all started.
In the beginning, all of us are sand. But we can be more. That is what we are seeking.
With courage and faith and the grace of God, and a sincere desire to fulfill his will…we can all become pearls.