The Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

At the heart of today’s Gospel reading is the question of whether or not we as disciples of Jesus are willing to go where he’s leading us. Much could be said about the posturing of James and John to get the good seats in the kingdom. But their ambition is not the point here. The point, as Jesus illustrates, is that his kingdom is not one of honor and glory. His kingdom is about suffering and redemption, and then honor and glory. To get to the resurrection, you have to go through the cross. And the most honored one is the one who serves everyone else along the way. Let me illustrate with an admittedly somewhat unflattering story about yours truly.

When I was in seminary, there were a number of nice, fancy dinners that would follow important events in the school year. So we would have them after a class received ministries like Lector or Acolyte, or after Mass for a reunion of 25-year or 50-year jubilarians. At each of these dinners, the table would be set up very fancy, and there would be an apron draped over the back of one of the chairs at the table. The idea was, the person sitting in that seat would be expected to put on the apron and serve the others at the table.

When I first got to seminary, when it came time for these dinners, I would rush to get to the refectory so that I didn’t have to sit in that spot and serve the others. I know, not very pastor-like, was it? But one day, I reflected on those last two lines of today’s Gospel: For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. And in that moment, I realized that it was indeed service that I was called to do, and so maybe I could get started by serving my brothers at table.

From that day forward, things changed for me. I would still rush to get over to the refectory as soon as I could, but that was so that I could sit in that seat and serve the others. Not only did I take on the server role, but I actually found joy in it. When you let go of thinking only about yourself, you find that you can actually receive many blessings. The blessings I found were that those dinners were a lot more fun; I had some wonderful conversations not only with the people at my table, but also with the kitchen staff.

Jesus in our Gospel reading today is calling us all to sit in that seat at the table, to put on our aprons, and help serve everyone else. That flies in the face of our entitlement, it tears down the notion of looking out for number one, it means that inconvenience for the sake of others has to become a real option in our daily lives.

Jesus told us that whoever wishes to be great among us must be the servant of all. He washed the feet of his disciples on his last night on this earth; he died on that cross for all of us. We are called to follow his ways if we want to follow him to the kingdom. Let’s none of us be afraid of taking that seat at the table and putting on the apron.

Saturday of the Twenty-eighth Week of Ordinary Time: Make a Difference Day

Today’s Readings

Anything worthwhile costs us something, most especially our faith.  If we are serious about it, if we love God and want to be caught up in his life, we’re going to have to pay for it in some way.  Jesus speaks to that in today’s Gospel.  One of the biggest costs to us, I think, is our comfort zone.  To really live the faith, we have to get out of that comfort and do what God wants of us.  In the Gospel, Jesus was telling his disciples that they would have to give witness to him.  And they understood that that would cost them something – perhaps cost them their lives.

We disciples are also going to have to pay some price for living our faith.  Probably not something as drastic as getting dragged before synagogues, rulers and authorities, but something fairly costly for us.  For us today, perhaps that cost is giving up a Saturday to clean church pews, or trim a neighbor’s hedges, or sing songs at a nursing home.

Today, on our Make a Difference Day, we take our give strong witness to our faith in our work. As we come together to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children, spend time in adoration praying for our community, or clean up our parish grounds, our presence and concern may be the way God is using us to get someone’s attention and see his presence in her or his life.  As Saint Therese of Liseaux used to encourage her sisters, we can make a big difference by doing little things with great love.

Jesus tells us that we will receive gifts of the Holy Spirit that enable us to speak on behalf of our faith. As we engage in whatever we have signed up to do today, that same Spirit may give us gifts that answer prayers we didn’t even know we had in our hearts, and definitely answer the prayers of others. Our work gives witness to who Christ is in our lives; Christ who loves us first and loves us best.  Sharing that love in the work we do today is a powerful way to help others know the presence of Christ in their lives.

Living our faith is always going to cost us something and that something could well be status or popularity, or at least the wondering glance from people who aren’t ready to accept the faith.  But the volumes that we speak by living our faith anyway might just lay the groundwork for conversion and become a conduit of grace.  We are told that we don’t have to hammer out all the words we want to say; that the Holy Spirit will give us eloquence that we can only dream of.  And it’s true, if we trust God, if we live our faith when it’s popular or unpopular, we will have the Spirit and the words.  God only knows what can be accomplished in those grace-filled moments!  I pray that you see Christ everywhere as you witness today.

The Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

If you’ve been to any number of Church weddings, you have probably heard today’s first reading, and part of the Gospel proclaimed.  Obviously we usually leave out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings.  The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other.  The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging.  We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when so many marriages fail.

Jesus’ point here is that the Christian disciple is called to a level of faithfulness that transcends the difficulties of life.  We can’t just throw in the towel and walk away when things are difficult: marriage vows make demands of people – I say that in every wedding homily I give.  In the very same way, ordination promises make demands of priests.  We have to pray for the grace to be faithful in good times and in bad.  But sometimes it doesn’t work out that way.

That being the case, I want to take this opportunity to make some points and dispel some myths about the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage, and annulment.  I do this because I know it is the source of pain for so many people, perhaps some people among us today.  It’s important that we all understand these teachings so that we can help one another live faithful lives and avoid making judgments about others which are best left to our Lord.

The first myth is that divorce is a sin that excommunicates a person from the Church and does not allow them to participate in the life of the Church or receive the sacraments.  But divorce is not a sin in and of itself.  It may well, however, be the result of sin, and a consequence of sin.  Whatever led to the divorce, on either or both sides, may in fact have been sinful.  Those who are divorced, however, remain Catholics in good standing and are free to receive the sacraments including the Eucharist, sacramental absolution in the sacrament of Penance, and the Anointing of the Sick.  However, they remain married to their partner in the eyes of the Church and are not free to remarry, unless they receive an annulment.  Those who remarry without an annulment have taken themselves out of communion with the Church and then, and only then, are not free to receive the sacraments.

The second myth is that an annulment is really just “Catholic Divorce.”  Annulment is instead recognition by the Church that a valid marriage, for some reason or another, had never taken place.  The diocesan policy document on annulment defines it in this way: “Although not every marriage is a sacrament, every marriage (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Non-Believer, etc.) is presumed to be a valid marriage.  The good of all concerned (spouses, children, in-laws, society, the Church, etc.) demands this presumption.  In every presumption, the opposite may be true.  If sufficient evidence can be shown that a particular marriage is invalid, the original presumption no longer holds.  Therefore, when it can be shown that a particular marriage is not a true marriage, or not a sacrament, or not consummated, then it is possible for the Tribunal to declare that the parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church.” (Declaration of Nullity Proceedings, Diocese of Joliet , p.3)  The annulment basically states that a valid marriage never happened in the first place, usually because the parties for some reason were not free to marry.  These reasons may include extreme immaturity, a previous and previously undiscovered prior marriage, or entering marriage with no intention of remaining faithful or of having children.  Pope Francis added some other reasons a few years ago, including a fictitious marriage that enabled one of the parties to enter into citizenship, a very brief marriage, stubborn persistence in an extramarital affair, and the procurement of an abortion to avoid procreation.  In addition, Pope Francis somewhat simplified the process of an annulment in order to decrease the amount of time it takes to proceed.

A third myth is that those who are marrying a non-Catholic who had been previously married are automatically free to marry, since the non-Catholic’s marriage did not take place in the Catholic Church.  But as I just said, the Church presumes marriages between non-Catholics to be valid, so their previous marriage would have to be annulled by the Catholic Church before a Catholic is free to marry them.  This is a very often misunderstood principle.

A fourth myth is that the Church always insists that the parties stay together.  Certainly, that is the Church’s preference: today’s readings show that the permanence of the marriage relationship is the intent of God.  However, we all understand that there are circumstances in which that may not be possible.  The Church would never counsel someone to stay together in a relationship that is abusive and puts one of the parties in danger.  That is completely unacceptable. If you are in an abusive relationship, whether the abuse is physical, verbal, or emotional, you need to seek help and safety.  The Church will support you in that decision.  If you find yourself in that kind of relationship, whether you are married or not, I want you to see someone on our staff immediately.

Finally, there are some misconceptions about annulment proceedings that I want to clear up.  First, if you do receive an annulment, that does not mean your children are illegitimate.  The Church sees children as a gift from God, and thus never takes away their status as sons and daughters of God.  Second, people think annulments are too expensive.  They are not.  The cost of an annulment in our diocese is around $700, not the tens of thousands of dollars people had thought was necessary in the past.  But, under no circumstances will an annulment be denied if a person cannot meet those expenses.  Having said that, I always tell people that there are other costs in an annulment, most of which are emotional.  An annulment dredges up all sorts of things that may have been suppressed, and that’s never going to be painless.  But that kind of pain is part and parcel of any healing, so when you are in the right place for it, if you think your marriage was invalid, you should speak to someone who can help you begin the process.  That person is called a field advocate, and here at Saint Mary’s, that would be me, Father John or Father Mike.  Please feel free to speak with us any time.

What it all comes down to is this: we must all do what we were created for.  Relationships and vocations are opportunities to do that, but to be effective, we must choose to be faithful.  And we must choose faithfulness each and every day – maybe even every moment.  When life throws stuff at us, as indeed it will, we must choose to be faithful anyway.  But if brokenness destroys that grace, we should turn to the Church for guidance, reconciliation, and mercy.

Just as man and woman cling to one another and become one flesh, so all of us are called to cling to God and become one with him. The Sacrament of Matrimony foreshadows the relationship that God has with the Church and the world.  We are all called to be caught up in God’s life and live forever with him.

Saturday of the Twenty-sixth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

During the summer before my final year of seminary, I worked as a hospital chaplain, in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education.  Most seminarians are required to do it.  It ended up being a pretty rough summer for me and the other men and women in the student chaplain group: we had a record number of deaths and tragic accidents to deal with, and it was, as you might expect, getting us pretty down.  Then for morning prayer one day, one of my fellow students brought in today’s Gospel, and we reflected especially on the end part of the reading:

“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

The more we explored that reading, the more we became aware that, even in the midst of all of the very real tragedy we were experiencing, we were also experiencing some very real great blessing.  How true that is for all of us in life.  We tend to dwell on the negative things we are seeing, and no one would ever doubt that we all have to see some pretty rotten stuff in our lives, some people it seems more so than others.  But the problem comes when we let go of the blessing that comes too.  We people of faith have to be convinced that God is with us even in, perhaps especially in, our darkest moments, and gives us glimpses of the kingdom of God that perhaps others don’t get to see.  Blessed are our eyes when we get to see them!

Job certainly could have had a hard time seeing the blessings around him. He expressed that in our first readings this past week, but today puts himself right with God.  We could be like him, forgetting the blessings.  But we must also be like him remembering God.  We can see God in the Eucharist, we can see God in the person sitting next to us, we can see God in the graced moments of our day.  Maybe we just need to open our eyes to see God more often, because he is there, longing to bless our eyes with the vision of him.

The Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time: Would that all of the people of the LORD were prophets!

Today’s readings

Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!

When we think about prophets and prophecy, I think our minds always take us to ancient days.  All the prophets we can think of lived many centuries ago: Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah, Amos and all the rest, right up to John the Baptist who was the last of the prophets of old and the beginning of the prophecy of the new.  All of it culminating in the person of Jesus Christ, whose prophecy was the voice of God himself.  But I think our readings today call us to look at prophecy in a new light, and to be open to the fact that there are many more prophets than we can think of right away, prophets that are a bit more contemporary than Moses and Elijah and all the others.

For Moses, prophecy was a huge task.  He bore the responsibility of bringing God’s message of salvation to a people who had become used to living without it.  He was to inaugurate the covenant between God and a people who had largely forgotten about God, or certainly thought God had forgotten about them.  His prophetic burden was great, but God offered to take some of his prophetic spirit and bestow it on the seventy elders.  So seventy were chosen, a list was drawn up, and a ceremony was prepared.

Two of their number – Eldad and Medad – were missing from the group during the ceremony, but the spirit was given to them anyway.  But this had Joshua all bent out of shape.  How could they be prophesying when they had not taken part in the ritual?  So he complains about it to Moses, who clearly does not share his concern.  He accuses Joshua of jealousy and says to him, “Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Moses’ vision for the ministry was bigger than himself, bigger than Joshua, bigger than even the chosen seventy.  And he makes a good point here.  What if every one of God’s people knew God well enough to prophesy in God’s name?  What if all of us who claim to follow God could speak out for God’s concern for the needy, the marginalized and the dispossessed?  What if every single one of us, when facing a decision, would immediately consider what God wants in that moment?  The world would certainly be a much different place.  Joshua’s concern was that the rules be followed.  Moses’ concern was that God’s work be done.

And so there’s a rather obvious parallel in the first part of today’s Gospel.  This time it’s John who is all bent out of shape.  Someone was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, and even worse, whoever it was was apparently successful!  Jesus, of course, does not share John’s concern.  Jesus’ vision of salvation was bigger than John’s.  If demons are being cast out in Jesus’ name, what does it matter who is doing it?  If people are being healed from the grasp of the evil one and brought back to the family of God, well then, praise God!

I think the point here that we need to get is that true prophecy, and really all ministry, doesn’t always fit into a neat little box.  During the rite of baptism, the person who has just been baptized is anointed with the sacred Chrism oil – the oil that anoints us in the image of Jesus as priest, prophet and king.  It is part of our baptismal calling for all of the people of the Lord to be prophets.  And so we really ought to be hearing the word of the Lord all the time, from every person in our lives.  Not only that, but we should be speaking the word of the Lord in everything we say and do!

Because prophets might be everywhere: God gives us all people who are prophetic witnesses to us: people who say and live what they believe.  They might be our parents or our children, the colleague at work, the person who sits next to us in math class, or even the neighbor who seems to always want to talk our ear off.  At the basic level, one of the most important questions that arises in today’s Liturgy of the Word is, who are the prophets among us?  Who is it in our lives that has been so gifted with the spirit that they challenge us to be better people and live better lives?

But as much as we have those kind of prophetic voices in our lives, there are also the othervoices.  These are the voices of our culture that drag us down to the depths of brokenness, debauchery and despair.  That, I think is what Jesus meant by all that drastic surgery he talked about at the end of the Gospel reading today.

I don’t think any of us needs to chop off a hand, but instead chop off some of the things those hands do.  Maybe it’s a business deal that is not worthy of our vocation as Christians.  Or it could be a sinful activity that we need to abandon.  In the same way, we probably shouldn’t lop off a foot.  But we may indeed need to cut out of our lives some of the places those feet take us.  Whether they’re actual places or situations that provide occasions for sin, they must go.  I’m not suggesting that you gouge out an eye.  But maybe cut out some of the things that those eyes see.  Whether it’s places on the internet we ought not go, or television shows or movies that we should not see, we need to turn away from those voices.  Some people may find that they need to get rid of the computer or television, or put them in a more public spot, or find an activity that takes them away from those things.  It may be hard to do without them, but better that than being so wrapped up in ourselves that we forget about God.  Better to live without these things than to be forever without God.

Prophecy is a huge responsibility, and we are all tasked with it.  Being open to that prophecy is a challenge to humility.  We might be the prophets, or we might be the ones hearing the prophets, but in either case we have work to do.  Prophets need to be faithful to God’s spirit, and hearers need to be open to the word and ready to act on it.  Prophecy nearly always calls us to a radical change.  May God help us to recognize the prophets among us, and make us ready to hear the word of the Lord.

Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!

Tuesday of the Twenty-fifth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Today’s Gospel reminds me of a sound bite for the evening news. Taken out of context, Jesus is denying his family. And not only that, but Jesus now has “brothers,” so what happened to the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary? Sound bites cause nothing but trouble because you don’t have the context to know what’s really being said. These sound bites take a whole lot of explanation, and the ones we have in today’s Gospel are certainly no exception.

First of all, let’s tackle the idea of Jesus having brothers. Many ideas surround that issue and have developed over time, as I am sure you can appreciate. One idea says that St. Joseph was an older man, and had sons by a previous wife, now dead. These would be Jesus’ half-brothers. Another idea comes from the fact that the Greek word translated “brothers” here is general enough that it might also refer to cousins or some other close kindred. So the brothers here would be close family members, not necessarily brothers. In either case, the Church affirms the perpetual virginity of Mary and this Gospel is making a different point.

The second sound bite is that Jesus seems to turn away from his mother and his relatives and claims that his family is those who hear the word of God and act on it. Well, Jesus certainly wasn’t turning away from his beloved mother or any of his close relatives. We know for a fact that Mary was the first of the disciples. Jesus seems to be more widening his family relationships than restricting them to just those related by blood. Which is good news for all of us who are now included in that family. Giving ourselves to the Word of God, hearing it and living it, we are mother and brother and sister to Christ. Praise God!

The Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

There’s a principle in the spiritual life known in Greek as kenosis.  Nobody likes to talk about it.  It’s nicer to talk about the consolations of prayer and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and things like that.  But nobody likes to talk about kenosis because, in English, we would translate that something like “self-emptying.”  That means making all the stuff we like or tolerate in us to go away, so that we can be filled up with God.  Now, the being filled up with God isn’t so bad; I think most people would like that.  We would probably say we’re all about the being filled up with God part.  But getting rid of the stuff that’s in there so that we can be filled up with God isn’t so much fun.

Kenosis is what today’s Liturgy of the Word is all about.  The first reading is from the book of Wisdom, which was composed about fifty years before the birth of Jesus. In today’s selection from that book, the Wisdom writer speaks of the just one.  The just one is obnoxious to the unjust, because his example challenges them and his words accuse them.  Nobody likes to have that kind of thing thrown in their face, and so they plot to take the just one’s life, which is exactly, of course, what will happen to Jesus.  So this first reading is a bit of liturgical foreshadowing.

And that’s what Jesus tells his Apostles.  In the Gospel reading, he takes them aside and confides something he doesn’t want to be widely known, at least not yet.  He says that he will be handed over to men who will kill him, and then three days later he will rise.  That’s what we call the Paschal Mystery, and unfortunately not even those Apostles were ready to hear it.  Instead, they engage in a frivolous argument about who was the greatest among them.  Can you imagine their embarrassment when Jesus asked them what they were arguing about along the way?

I can just imagine Jesus’ anguish as he reflected on that truth, knowing that the end was coming near and that he would die a horrifying death, and not even his closest friends could offer him so much as a kind word, let alone reflect on what that might mean for them, and the mission.  And so he confronts them about their embarrassing argument and tells them that the one who would wish to be the greatest must be the lowest of all, serving all the rest.  That was true for him, and it would be true for them too.  Quite frankly, it’s true for us too.  That’s kenosis, and to one degree or another, we are all called to share in it.

Here’s the thing: if the Apostles couldn’t handle a message of kenosis, then it’s going to be challenging for the rest of us too.  Think about it: our society doesn’t teach us to want to be the last of all and the servant of all.  Our society tells us to look out for ourselves and take care of number one.  Our society tells us to strive for every honor and glory for ourselves, to be known as the greatest, much like the Apostles wanted to be in that silly argument.  We even hear about the so-called “Prosperity Gospel” in which televangelists and other preachers tell people how much God wants them to be rich and famous.  Here’s a spiritual pro-tip: God doesn’t care if we’re rich and famous or not, he just wants us to take care of others, have relationship with him, and live the Gospel.

Some of the resistance, too, is internal.  Some of the resistance is because, on some level, we love our sins more than we love Jesus.  Ouch – it hurts to say that, but there’s truth there.  Unless we have the desire to give up our sinfulness, really have a firm purpose of amendment, as the Rite of Penance puts it; unless we want that more than anything, then we can’t want Jesus, or his Kingdom, or the Gospel, or eternal life.  We’ve got to be ready to give up everything that takes up space in our lives if we ever want to inherit the glory that God created us to have.

Imagine you have your hands full of stuff that you really like.  Maybe it’s not the best stuff, but it gives you pleasure and so you hang on to it.  Or maybe it’s not really safe, but it makes you feel comfortable, and that’s as good as it gets right now.  Now someone comes and offers you something much better.  But your hands are full, and you’ve become used to the pleasure or the comfort, and so you don’t have any way to receive, to grab the really good thing you are being offered.  The only way you’re going to be able to receive that good gift is by letting go of the garbage in your hand.  Can you do that?  Can you empty your hands so that you can receive grace?

Because here’s the truth: if we want to enter the Kingdom, we’re going to have to empty ourselves out and get rid of all that nonsense. We’re going to have to repent of our sins, give up every distraction, and focus entirely on our God.  Because nothing that looks like earthly glory and honor and prosperity will fit into heaven. Hanging on to the sin, the selfish ambition, the conceited entitlement will prevent us from filled up with Christ, from receiving his grace, from inheriting eternal life.  We have to get rid of it all: that’s what kenosis looks like for us.  And whether we like to talk about it or not, it’s the only way we’re getting into heaven.

Saturday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

We’ve all heard this gospel parable about the sower and the seeds dozens of times. We know, then, that the seeds are the Word of God: not just some words, but Word with a capital “W,” which is Jesus himself, God’s eternal Word, spoken to bring life to a world dead in sin. We know that the seeds are that presence of Christ which fall on hearts that are variously rocky, or thorny, or rich and fertile. We’ve heard the parable, with Jesus’ own explanation, as well as homilies about it, so many times.

But what got me wondering as I read the parable in preparation for this morning’s Mass, was why – why are we hearing this parable now? The liturgical cycle usually conforms to the calendar, more or less, and so why this parable about sowing seeds now, on this day of the autumnal equinox, of all days? Nobody in their right mind sows seeds in autumn!

But God does. He sows the Word among us all the time: every day and every moment. It’s not just once for the season, and if the seeds don’t grow, then try again next year maybe. He is constantly sowing the seeds in us, urging us to make of our hearts rich, fertile soil for the Kingdom. And we do that by enriching the soil through reception of the Sacraments, participating at Mass, enlivening our prayer life, being open to the Word.

The Sower is out sowing the seeds of his Eternal Word all the time. Let’s give him fertile ground, that we can yield a rich harvest.

Mass for the Healing of the Church

Readings: Jeremiah 31:31-34 | Psalm 130 | 2 Corinthians 5:17 – 6:2 | Matthew 5:1-12a

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

I think a lot of us could use some comforting in these days.  The news of the grand jury report out of Pennsylvania about clergy sexual abuse over a period of seventy years, and the real possibility of more of that in every other state was pretty awful.  Then add the disheartening news of Archbishop McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians under his care, and possibly a young person earlier, along with the shocking news that men in the hierarchy of the Church knew about it and said nothing as he advanced his career, and it’s understandable how horrible we all feel, how much we mourn.  We clamor for our God to comfort us.

I could mention so many emotions that I have experienced in these days: anger, disgust, shame, fear, sadness, brokenness. But as I mentioned in my bulletin column a couple of weeks ago, none of that compares to what victims of sexual abuse have probably felt in these days.  In some ways, I imagine they feel violated all over again, and that, friends, breaks this pastor’s heart.

The Church should be a safe haven.  The Church should protect young people – it’s the Church’s job to love young people into the glory of heaven.  For heaven’s sake, we should not permit them to be violated and then swept under the carpet, left with nowhere to go and no one to whom to turn.

My pastor’s heart is broken, too, because all of this derails the mission of the Church.  We want to be on fire for Christ and lead every longing heart to our God. But how can we convince a skeptical world to take a chance on a Church that seems to have a real problem with integrity, justice, love, and truth – all those things that we should be beaconing out to a world grown dark in sin and sadness.  How can we be a light for the world when we harbor the darkness of sin and shame?  How can people ever trust us with their souls when they can’t even trust us with their children?

And the thing is, we should be getting it right by now.  We didn’t go far enough when these things started coming to light in the 1980s.  We went much further after the scandals of 2002, but a lot of things got left out.  There was no process to discipline bishops who covered up scandal, or even bishops who were abusers.  Even though our diocese had a publicly available list of priests who were abusers, far too many dioceses did not.  And every time we didn’t go far enough, we gave evil a chance to darken our world.

As your pastor, with a broken heart, I am sorry for the sins the Church has committed – sorry for the abuse that got perpetrated by clergy and covered up by other clergy.  I am sorry if you were abused, and I am sorry for everyone who has felt shame because of what is going on.  I know these are just words, and inadequate ones at that.  But they convey my real feelings, and they are feelings I really want you to know.

Back in my first parish as a priest, I had an initial meeting with a couple preparing for marriage.  She was Catholic and he was from one of the main-line Protestant communities.  As I walked them through the paperwork, I got to the part where the Catholic has to agree to raise the children in the Catholic faith.  I always do that with both parties present, because that’s a decision they need to come to together.  Most often, the couple has talked about that and has accepted it. But this time the groom voiced his objection.  When I asked him to tell me more about that, he told me that he had been abused by a minister at his church.  And though he was obviously scarred from it, he appreciated that his church took it seriously and did everything possible to help him heal.  He wasn’t confident the Catholic Church was ready to do that.

I told him about the measures the Church had taken since 2002, and the way that we promote safe environment.  They are measures that truly have made a great deal of difference in the years since.  I wasn’t able to convince him, and the couple never did marry for that and other reasons. But that interaction rekindled all the feelings I had in seminary when the scandals broke and half my class left.

It’s time to do more.  We all have to hold each other accountable for everything – bishops, priests, deacons, faithful.  We all have care for each other’s souls and need to say something when things aren’t right.  We need to pray that our nation’s bishops, when they meet this coming November, will take the concrete steps needed to make the hierarchy of our Church conform to the witness, integrity, and zeal of the Apostles, whose successors they have been ordained to be.  We need to pray that every child and every person in the Church will be treated as Christ himself.  We need to pray that the bright light of Truth would scatter the darkness of sin. We need to pray in these days that our God would write his Law in our hearts, that he would be our God, and that we would be his people.

Because, in the face of this, it’s easy to come to despair.  It’s easy to think this will never change and it’s all just going to come up over and over again.  I want to say two things about that.  First of all, as we heard in yesterday’s Gospel, the Cross is the heart of what it means to be a disciple.  When we are tempted to think it would be easier to walk away from the Church so that we don’t have to feel the pain, we need to say, “Get behind me, Satan.”  Because it’s always the evil one who wants to convince us that life is better without the Cross.  Second, as I said last Monday to our Confirmation students, there is a place we can go when we can’t see a solution to the problem.  Jesus is enough, and more than enough, to fill up our emptiness, to convert our stony hearts, to sanctify the Church and to bring reconciliation and healing to a broken Church and a broken world.

I remember being in seminary in 2002 when so many of my classmates decided to leave.  I certainly wondered why I was still there, and if I should leave too. As I prayed about that, the Bible verse that kept coming to my mind was the response of Saint Peter to our Lord when he asked the disciples if they were going to leave like so many of the others. Peter said, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of everlasting life.” That one verse has gotten me through just about every occasion when I felt tempted – tempted by the evil one – to walk away.  And in these days, I think we need to realize how important it is that we are here: tonight, and every day.  Because we certainly could walk away, but the Church is our Mother and she means too much to us.  The Church and its sanctity and holiness are worth fighting for, and we are the warriors that our Lord has chosen to bring holiness to our Church and to our world in this sad hour.  We have to be those who hunger and thirst for righteousness if we ever want to be truly satisfied.

I know I have a lot of nerve asking you to pray hard, to hold us and each other accountable, and to fight for the Church when the Church has let you down.  Why won’t they clean up their mess?  After all, they are the ones who fouled it up.  But the Church isn’t a “they.”  The Church is a “we.”  And if we ever want the Church to be holy and a beacon of light, then we have the be the ones to fight for it.  If we don’t do it, who will?

To all of us who clamor for righteousness, our Lord has made a solemn promise: our reward will be great in heaven.  That promise is worth fighting for, friends. It’s worth purifying our own lives, calling out for real change in the Church, and praying for with every fiber of our being.  Even if others ridicule and persecute us for our faith, we will be rewarded with greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

I borrowed the idea for our gathering tonight from my alma mater,Mundelein Seminary, who recently completed a Novena for the Healing of the Church.  The prayer that they used for that novena is printed in your worship aid.  I’d ask you now to stand and pray it with me:

Loving God, turn your ear to the cries of your sons and daughters who seek healing for Your Church.
We are heartbroken. We are bruised. We are hurting.

In these days we again wrestle with understanding the heinous acts of abuse by those entrusted with shepherding Your flock. Ease our troubled hearts. Mend our broken spirits.
Be “ever present in our distress.”

Merciful Lord, send Your Healing Spirit to our brothers and sisters who have endured pain and abuse physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Comfort their weary spirits. Soothe their pain. Grant them justice. May our eyes be opened to see Your image in these wounded members of Your Church.

Shepherd of Souls, make Your presence known to us that these wrongful acts will be addressed. Inspire our leaders of the Church to seek new and effective paths to keep safe the flock they shepherd.

Give us all courage to act and speak up on behalf of the most vulnerable. Rush the winds of the Spirit to scatter the darkness of sin. Pour forth Your healing Spirit to renew our trust and hope in You, who are our refuge and our strength.
We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Monday of the Twenty-fourth Week of Ordinary Time

Today’s readings

Quite honestly, this Gospel story is a little strange, maybe even surprising.  I was particularly struck by what the messenger said to Jesus when he asked him to come to the centurion’s house: “He deserves to have you do this for him.”  As if any of us is ever worthy of God’s mercy!  To his credit, the centurion must have heard of this, because he hurries to Jesus to set things right: “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.  Therefore, I did not consider myself worthy to come to you; but say the word and let my servant be healed.”  And what he says also explains why he sent a messenger to come to Jesus instead of coming himself.  For his part, Jesus is impressed with the man’s faith: “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith,” he says.  And so the healing of the man’s slave takes place at once.  It’s an interesting exchange, to be sure.

We have the privilege, every time we gather for the Eucharist, to echo the centurion’s faith.  The prayer that we say, just before we come to the Altar for Holy Communion, says this: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.  But only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”  And saying those words out loud is so important at that moment in the Mass.  Unless we truly believe that Christ’s Body and Blood are sufficient for the healing of our souls, unless we truly know that we are completely unworthy of God’s mercy, then we don’t have the faith necessary to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord.

But when we do enter into that moment of Communion with hearts open in faith, everything changes for us.  True healing can come about, and we can return to our daily lives and find our souls healed with the grace that prepares them for whatever this world brings us.