January 26-27, 2002, Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A
Is everyone here completely satisfied with the Catholic Church at all levels? Even in the best of times, I suspect the answer to that question is no. Now, these are not the worst of times by any means but they are times of pain and challenge. As many of you know, I am the Webmaster of the Archdiocesan web site. Over the past few weeks, a good number of people have sent emails to the Webmaster thinking they were going to the Cardinal. Most of these messages were anything but supportive. What disturbed me was that many of the messages were from people who claimed to have left the Church a long time ago because of some issue, or were leaving it now, or who claimed to have lost their faith.
I am not going to try to treat the intricacies of the Geoghan case and the attacks on the Cardinal in a homily. As Fr. Butler stated in his letter, any of the staff would be glad to discuss these issues in more detail at a more appropriate time. I would like to say one thing from my personal view about the attacks on the Cardinal. The ones I have heard seem to discount a very real consideration: we cannot apply our 20-20 hindsight to judgments made years ago. How hard it is to really remember how we saw things even months ago let alone years. Two examples came to my mind. Many of you are old enough to remember a time when, in a small town like Stow, a policeman pulled someone over some night for driving under the influence, they put that person in the cruiser and took them home safely. Any police officer doing that today would be subject to prosecution. Perhaps more troubling is how we regard smoking. Many of us still smoke and all of us know someone who does, even though there is incontrovertible proof that smoking can kill bystanders as well as the smoker. Yet most of us do nothing to stop this. Hopefully in the not too distant future, people will look back on us and say, “How could they have ignored the seriousness of this?” I also recommend Beverly Beckham's article in Friday's Herald for an insightful way of looking at this. http://www.bostonherald.com/news/columnists/bev01252002.htm
What I would like to talk to you about today is how we view the Church in the face of troubled times such as these. On what is our faith grounded in the face of minor irritations such as an unpleasant parish staff member, to being made to feel outcast because of marital status, to larger, more fundamental issues like the Church’s view of women or the crimes, or grave sins, of a church leader?
As we listen to Paul, we realize that dysfunction in the Church is no recent invention. What I find so troubling is a reaction to such dissatisfaction that ends in someone “leaving the Church” or losing his or her faith. Let me suggest that this reaction is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Church is, and what our faith is based on.
Maybe a good place to start is what the Church isn’t. The Church is not perfect; while the Church enjoys the protection of the Holy Spirit, it does not share Jesus sinlessness. Church leaders do not have “better” access to God than others; and the Church is not an end unto itself.
The Church is not perfect. Many of us would like to forget
that, or to ignore that. How can a true Church of God be capable of sin? The
Church’s imperfection, acknowledged so dramatically by both the Pope and
Cardinal Law during the Jubilee Year, is essential to God’s plan for salvation.
As Paul came to realize, it was in his imperfection that he became most
effective as an instrument of God’s plan for salvation. As I said last month in
my homily, our faith is an incarnational faith. That means that God has chosen
human beings, with all their imperfections, to be the sole instruments of his
plan for salvation. Until we accept this, it is easy to use any sign of
weakness or unworthiness to excuse ourselves from working for God’s plan.
In today’s Gospel we hear Jesus proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand. It is not something that must wait until everything is perfect. It is right here in the midst of all our sinfulness. But, and it is a big but, it is not yet fully realized. And God has chosen humans with all our weakness to make it fully realized. We cannot wait till every thing is perfect before working to make this kingdom stronger and more visible here on earth.
Church leaders do not have better access to God nor is the Church an end to itself. As a matter of fact, bishops and priests and deacons and religious and leaders at every level of Church hierarchy have one and only one purpose in life: to help others experience God’s presence. The most important group of people in the Church is the baptized. All the other roles are given to help us live out our baptismal commitment to make Christ present in this world.
Our faith is not meant to be an assent to theological principles, nor an allegiance to some church leader or other, or even a way of living or worshipping. Our faith is meant to be one thing only: an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus the Christ. Matthew’s Gospel explains it so simply. Be open to the call of Jesus to follow him, and then commit yourself to do just that. Jesus didn’t go around giving half-day seminars on the spirituality of the kingdom, or handing out ritual books so people could better give praise and thanksgiving to the Father. He just went around and invited people to follow him. Jesus does not reveal to us the truth ABOUT salvation, or the truth ABOUT life. Jesus IS salvation; Jesus IS the truth; Jesus IS life.
Nor is our faith just a personal relationship with Jesus. It is the collective response in community to Jesus’ call to follow him. In this story from Matthew, we see Jesus calling his disciples the same way he later sends them out: two by two. We can only be effective instruments of God’s plan in community.
Where do we find Jesus? In the scriptures, of course. But most especially we find him in the flesh of all those who have started to follow him, this body of followers we call the Church, with all their weakness and sinfulness as well as their gifts. Through baptism, we make our choice to leave our boats and our nets to follow Jesus. In the Eucharist, we make good on that baptismal commitment to be one with Jesus. Everything else we do as Church must be focused on being united with him as the Body of Christ, which incarnates God’s love in this world. That is God’s plan.
So when I hear people reacting to dysfunction in the Church by losing their faith, or leaving the Church, or refusing to make any more contributions, it strikes me as a hand, on finding out the liver has cancer saying, “I’m outta here. I’m going to find a new body which is not sick!” What other body is there? If our Catholic faith says the Jesus IS the way, where else do we go to find the body of Christ. If we retreat from this body, how does that help bring about the kingdom? Who will baptize our babies, or marry our children, or bury our dead. Who in this area of Massachusetts will care for the more than a million people that this Archdiocese has fed and sheltered and nursed and protected from abuse in the last decade? Who will gather more than 150 representatives of every religion in the world, as the Pope did this Thursday in Assisi, to pray together for peace, to pledge never again to use religion to justify violence? Where will we go? Jesus, you ARE the word of everlasting life.
What are we to do? First and most importantly, we must pray. And pray not just talking to God, but listening for Jesus’ particular call to us to follow him. To paraphrase the Pope in his message this Thursday at Assisi, there will be no peace, no resolution of this crisis, without justice. Justice demands that those who have committed crimes be brought to just punishment. But there will be no justice without forgiveness. So let us follow Jesus in the unity of his Body the Church, knowing that in our very sinfulness, God can use us to bring about his Kingdom here on earth.