Saturday, April 9, 2011

4th Sunday of Lent: Untie Him and Let Him Go

The late Senator Joseph McCarthy, a fervent anti-Communist and a populist or demagogue (depending on your political leanings), is probably the most infamous person from Appleton, Wisconsin. The most famous is likely the great illusionist and master escape artist Harry Houdini. People in the early part of the 20th century were thrilled when they witnessed this small but strong and agile man bound hand and foot with locks and chains and thrown into a river… only to emerge a few minutes later not only alive but freed of his shackles.

Houdini’s shackles were self-imposed for the purposes of entertainment and making money. Some of us also have self-imposed shackles, though we may be unaware of them or deny their existence: addiction, self-doubt, ignorance, etc. We have the capacity to be free ourselves--with God’s help--but choose instead to drown in our chains because we are inhibited by fear, laziness, lack of faith or hope, or the insistence that we do it our way.

Some of us have shackles that are imposed by others or circumstances, including abuse, neglect, accident, or disability. We can also be freed of these but we, too, can be impeded by those same powerful forces of fear, inertia, skepticism or despair, and pride. Whatever the source of our shackles, Jesus wants us to be free; but he needs our cooperation. He bids us to come out of our tombs, to be unbound and set free; but sometimes we choose to stay put. Sometimes, tragically and maddeningly, we choose to stay dead.

This past week, I was blessed to participate in an extraordinary conference sponsored by Marquette University Law School’s Restorative Justice Initiative: “Harm, Hope, and Healing: An International Dialogue on the Clergy Sex Abuse Crisis.” The conference brought together victims/survivors, academics, bishops, priests, therapists, attorneys, doctors, counselors, and others to address this issue, which remains an unhealed wound for many inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church.

Through the two days of panel presentations, reflections, prayer services, statistical overviews, and question-and-answer sessions some common themes emerged: the need for greater truth and transparency about what has happened; the desire for a broader and deeper consideration of who has been harmed; and the search for what can be done to repair the harm, particularly in light of the sobering realization that twenty-five years of addressing these issues chiefly through litigation has brought about very little healing, reconciliation, or perhaps even justice.

I came away from the conference hopeful and frightened—hopeful that it might spur some creative and even daring initiatives and programs and frightened that pride, fear, ignorance, anger, and other forces may keep us in the tomb, still bound-up, stinking, and dead. One of the “take-aways” of the conference for me was that while the agitation for change is coming from many places inside and outside the church, the place where the change must occur most profoundly is in those of us who have been called to leadership: bishops, priests, and religious superiors.

Can we be freed of the seduction of the clericalism which leads to abuses of power? Are we willing to share and in some cases hand over some of our authority to lay men and women? Are we ready to call out sin when we see it rather than trying to avoid dealing with it or worse, trying to cover it up? Can we face the reality that while professing to live in the Spirit we have too often lived according to the flesh?

The answers to these questions may seem self-evident; but in practice they have been harder to discern or own. When you dwell in the tomb long enough you can get used to the stench. It only becomes evident when the stone is rolled away and the fresh air enters in.

The promise that God made centuries ago through Ezekiel to the people of Israel is the promise that God makes to the Church today:

“I will open your graves, have you rise, and bring you back. I will put my spirit in you, that you may live.”

The psalmist’s pledge is renewed for us:

“With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.”

The assurance that St. Paul gave to the early church of Rome echoes through the ages to the Roman Church today:
“If the Spirit of the one who raised Christ from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will bring life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.”
The call of Jesus to Lazarus is his call to the church today: “Come out (of your tomb)!” His command then is our duty now: “Untie him and let him go.”

Lord Jesus, our resurrection and our life, come to us, renew us, and set us free! +

Sunday, September 19, 2010

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Gekko's Echos

In the 1987 Oliver Stone movie Wall Street, the Darwinian corporate raider Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglass) infamously tells his young protégé Bud (Charlie Sheen) that “Greed is…good.” In the upcoming sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a reformed Gekko uses his wiles and wealth to try to head off a financial meltdown fueled by the very greed he once perversely promoted as a virtue. Life and what’s really important can look a lot different after a decade in prison for insider trading and other white collar crimes.

Greed, very clearly, is not good. After all, it is still one of the Seven Deadly Sins! Money may never sleep but as Amos and other prophets remind us, neither does God, who unlike money is also eternal. In our first reading, the wealthy and powerful of Israel were depicted as unreformed Gordon Gekkos, so anxious to take care of their business that they almost resented being constrained by the observances of the Sabbath and other festivals.

Their primary aim in life was to make money and to grow or stay rich; and if they had to bend a few rules—diminishing measures, manipulating prices, fixing scales, selling even the refuse of the wheat—well, that was simply the price of success. If they had to hurt a few poor people along the way, then so be it. Some were even willing to sell a pair of sandals to those so desperately poor that they were willing to put up their own lives and freedom as collateral.
Such greed was an abomination to God and his messenger, Amos. So why, in our gospel reading, does Jesus appear to endorse the actions of a rotten steward who changes his master’s invoices to benefit himself? Why does he encourage his disciples to make friends with the use of dishonest wealth? It may seem confusing at first, but the Lord’s intention becomes clearer when we consider his stern warning at the end of this passage: “No servant can serve two masters….You cannot serve both God and mammon (wealth).”
Jesus wasn’t commending the steward for his dishonesty but rather for his creativity and flexibility in response to a situation that challenged his success and even his survival—a situation not unlike that faced by the late first century church to whom Luke first wrote his gospel. Faced with the prospect of being down and out, the wily steward found a way to land on his feet.
We live in an age where the church’s mission of evangelization and in some cases even its survival are challenged by a host of forces. These pressures range from persecution by religious fanatics in places like India and Indonesia, to the relentless forces of secularization in the West, to the self-destructive demons active in the misconduct of some its ministers. Can we find a similar motivating energy, creativity and flexibility to fulfill our calls to serve God, proclaim the Good News, and love our brothers and sisters? Can we change not the timeless content of our message and values but the ways which they are celebrated, taught and applied?
When St. Paul addressed the first century forces that threatened the church from without and within, his response in some cases was prophetic confrontation. But as we witnessed in today’s second reading, in other cases he suggested what might be called prayerful accommodation. It a world filled with turmoil, the most powerful thing that the church could do was to offer “supplications, prayers, petitions and thanksgivings…for everyone.” Prayer changes things; and it does so first and foremost because it changes us.
The great human rights leader and apostle of nonviolence Mahatma Gandhi said, “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” That applies to us as individual disciples and also to us as a church. In a world where Gordon Gekko’s echoes still reverberate, proclaiming not so much in words but in actions greed as good and god as mammon, we have a holy obligation to say “No” and to show our sisters and brothers another and even richer way. +

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Under Construction: 22nd Sunday

There are a number of phrases that strike terror in the hearts of any driver: the dashboard light that says, “Check Engine;” the newspaper headline that says, “Record Gas Prices;” or the plaintive question, “Are we there yet?” asked for fifteenth time…in the past fifteen minutes!

This time of year, however, perhaps the most feared phrase for anyone behind the wheel is printed on an orange sign: “Road Work Ahead.” It is often accompanied by one of those symbols that indicate that there will be fewer lanes in the construction zone. In many cases, there’s not much to worry about. Traffic may slow down a bit, but at least things don’t grind to a halt.

Then there are experiences like the one I had a couple of Sundays ago. I was on I-94 driving from Chicago to Detroit. It was a Sunday evening, and I had been on the road for several days for meetings, Masses, and provincial celebrations. I was really looking forward to getting home. I had been driving almost five hours when I saw that dreaded orange sign—“Road Work Ahead”—accompanied by the lane closure symbols. I switched on the local AM station that features “traffic every ten minutes” to get an update.

By the time I heard the update, however, I had become part of the news—an interstate parking lot in which four lanes of cars and trucks had been reduced to one. What was normally a drive of five minutes took nearly an hour-and-a-half! Fortunately, I had done two very important things only 30 minutes before I hit this traffic jam: I filled up the gas tank and I (ahem) used the bathroom. As we crawled along the highway, it appeared from the worried and pained faces of some of my fellow drivers that they were not so fortunate.

The memory of those faces returned as I read Jesus’ response to the one who asked him how many would be saved: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” Those are not exactly reassuring words! We’ve all seen television footage of concert goers seeking tickets, refugees seeking bread and water, and even Christmas shoppers at Wal-Mart seeking the year’s hot toy pushing, shoving, squeezing and even trampling each other to get through a narrow doorway to get what they want.

The Lord’s admonition, however, was not intended to cause paralyzing fear or panic but rather to spur us to action. He was trying to address a sense of complacency and entitlement that afflicted those who followed him as well as those who opposed him. Many believed that their status as descendants of Abraham guaranteed them the salvation that had been promised to the people of

Israel when the Messiah came. They took comfort in the words of the scriptures that separated them from “the nations,” that is the gentile peoples around them.

In the face of such an attitude, Jesus said, “Not so fast!” It was not enough, he suggested, for them to acknowledge but fail to act on the promise of salvation. They had to live it, that is, to think, speak and work as if they were already living in the reign of God. In addition, they would also need to accept that the invitation to be part of God’s kingdom was not for them alone but was for the whole world.

This wasn’t a totally new teaching. It had been proclaimed centuries before by the prophets like Isaiah. Preaching to a people returning to Jerusalem after the exile to Babylon, Isaiah announced a message of radical inclusion to a nation that had once prided itself on its exclusivity: “I know their works and their thoughts, and I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory.”

Echoing the proclamation of Isaiah, Jesus prophesied: “And people will

come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God. For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

So status doesn’t matter. Action in response to the gospel is what counts. The fact that we are Christians, our membership in the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church,” and even our baptism won’t matter if we don’t live the faith we have professed and fulfill the promises made in our baptism.

As we all know, living our faith is often a challenge. It’s tempting to “drive on the shoulder” and avoid the difficult traffic. It’s easy to lose patience or become discouraged when we feel stuck in the spirit, when our growth as followers of Jesus seems stalled, when the Church itself seems to be barely moving forward.

That’s where the discipline we heard about in our second reading comes in. Unfortunately, most people associate discipline with punishment. But the Latin root of the word suggests something far different: discipulus means “student.” The author of Hebrews was trying to encourage a struggling and disheartened church to accept their trials not as punishment but as “teachable moments,” opportunities to grow in the Lord.

Whether it’s physical, emotional or spiritual, pain can be our tutor. It’s a sign that something is wrong and needs to be changed. If you have a hangover, your body is telling you something. If you feel anguish, anger, or sadness around some one you’re supposed to love, that’s telling you something, too.

As the author of Hebrews reminded us, spiritual growth depends on our being teachable. Unfortunately, too many people get lost in their pain and fail to learn its lessons. But we have other options: “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Fortunately, God is not through with us. We’re still in training. We’re still under construction. +

Sunday, August 1, 2010

18th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Public Storage or Lasting Legacy?

Manute Bol’s name will never appear on a list of the greatest players in the National Basketball Association. For many people he represented something of an athletic oddity, even a freak. A Sudanese immigrant to the U.S., he stood 7 feet, 7 inches tall and weighed only 225 pounds. His career on the court was rather unremarkable. He played for five teams over his ten years in the NBA, and over that time he averaged fewer points (2.6) than blocked shots (3.3).

If he didn’t exactly grab headlines on the court, Manute Bol didn’t off the court, either, especially in the ways typically and tragically associated with too many professional athletes: drug and/or gun possession; entourages and strip clubs; and multiple children born to multiple women in multiple cities, with no marriage in sight or mind. He wasn’t into “bling” or flings.

Though he made a very good living in the NBA he was virtually broke when he died in June at age 47 from complications of a skin disease. In the final years of his life, he became even more of a side show act when he was hired to be a jockey, a hockey player or even a boxer against William “the Refrigerator” Perry, the massive former defensive lineman for the Chicago Bears.

But it was all for a good cause. It is estimated that Manute Bol, a devout Christian, gave away most of his estimated $6 million fortune to help Sudanese refugees. He once explained his motivation this way: “God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back.” Because of his heart and ability to look back, Manute Bol left a lasting legacy in the refugees he helped and the hospitals he built. Unlike the rich fool in today’s gospel reading, he tore down his own barns to make larger ones…for others.

When Jesus was invited to arbitrate a dispute between two brothers over their ancestral property, he demurred. Instead he used it as “a teachable moment” in which he used the story of the rich man with the abundant harvest as a cautionary tale to “Take care to guard against all greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.”

Those may be especially tough words for us in the U.S. According to the Self-Storage Association, public storage is now a $22 billion a year industry with over 15,000 facilities nationwide. According to the Pew Research Center, the median size of a new single family home in the U.S. grew from 1570 sq. ft. in 1980 to 2237 sq. ft. by 2005—an increase of 42% during a period when our families were getting smaller and the number of public storage facilities grew exponentially. It seems that, in some respects, our lives do consist of possessions!

During that same period one would also be able to trace an increase in the average work week, an increase in private debt as well as budget deficits at various levels of government, and company and bank balance sheets that were increasingly leveraged. It all came to a screeching halt in 2008. We are still recovering.

The ancient sage Qoheleth opened the Book of Ecclesiastes with the sobering cry, “Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” The original Hebrew hebel is much more vivid than “vanity,” for it more literally means “breath” or “vapor.” In his very practical wisdom drawn from experience over many years, he observed some things that are also familiar to us and sometimes seem just as unfair. For example, a person can work hard for many years or something but may only get to enjoy it for a moment or perhaps not at all.

Qoheleth could also see that not just things but work itself can be a form of vanity. This is a particular challenge for those of us whose identities can become too closely intertwined with how much we produce or accomplish, particularly when it all comes at the price of “toil and anxiety of heart” and sleepless nights. In the face of such insomnia, Jesus offers a simple over-the-counter prescription: instead of storing up treasures for ourselves grow “rich in what matters to God.”

In other words, as St. Paul might say, we need to recall that by virtue of our baptism (symbolized in part by putting on the white garment) we “have put on the new self, which is being renewed, for knowledge, in the image of its creator.” This necessarily means that we must also “put to death…immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and the greed that is idolatry.” Our idols can take many shapes and forms, some material and others less so. What they all have in common, however, is that they become our gods or what theologian Paul Tillich called our “ultimate concern.”

We can’t live double lives…at least not with integrity. Like the rich man in the gospel we will all have a day of reckoning, if not in this life then certainly in the life to come.

A little over a week ago, Milwaukee was hit with torrential rains that devastated much of the city. In one memorable incident, a Cadillac Escalade and a street light were swallowed up by a sink hole at Oakland and North Ave. The following afternoon I was listening to a talk radio show on which the host invited listeners to call in with their stories from the Great Flood of 2010. One woman who called described how she watched helplessly as her basement filled with water and destroyed much of her family’s property. At the same time, she also gave thanks that no one was hurt and she remembered her husband’s words as they began to clean-up: “It’s just stuff.”

God’s word and the example of a Sudanese basketball player invite us to get our stuff together and to decide whether what we leave behind will be fit only for public storage or will be a lasting legacy for others and a testament to God. +

Sunday, July 11, 2010

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

It was on Easter Sunday 2009 that Brendan Marrocco’s life changed forever. Private Marrocco, a gung-ho 22-year old serving in the U.S. Army, was on patrol in northern Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded under the vehicle he was driving. The blast blew off all of his arms and legs. Some of the shrapnel cut through his carotid artery. By the time he reached the emergency room, he had lost eighty percent of his blood. Few thought that he would make it.

Miraculously, however, Brendan Marrocco managed to survive. He became the first veteran of our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to live after losing all four of his limbs in combat. Fifteen months and fourteen surgeries later, he has made a remarkable recovery. His willingness to push himself through therapy to the point of exhaustion and his good humor have won him all kinds of admirers and have helped him to learn how to use four prosthetic devices. He is now considered a prime candidate for a rare double arm transplant.

But as amazing as his dedication and effort have been, Brendan Marrocco would never have made it without the support of dozens and dozens of people - everyone from an army of doctors, nurses and physical therapists to famous athletes. Perhaps the most important of these people is Brendan’s brother, Michael, who left a well-paying job with Citigroup and moved to Washington to be at his brother’s side. In exchange for his presence and assistance, U.S. Army provides him with room and board and $64 a day for his living expenses.

Their mother didn’t think that the more reserved Michael, whom she said wasn’t a caregiver by nature, would be able to handle a job as demanding as helping a quadruple amputee. But he has. When asked why he chose to quit a great career to do a job that others could certainly do, he said simply, “It needed to be done, and I was best prepared to do it.” For his brother Brendan, Michael Marrocco is the Good Samaritan.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives us a timeless parable that tells us what it really means to be “neighbor” to one another and gives us a flesh-and-blood definition of love. In the process, he also turns some conventional ideas of what it means to be righteous on their heads.

When challenged by “a scholar of the law” to tell him what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus quoted to him two provisions of the law. The first was a portion of the Shema Israel, the first of all of the commandments, from the Book of Deuteronomy (read Deut. 6:4-8). The second came from another part of the Torah, Leviticus 19:18, one of a long list of laws governing the people of Israel in their care for themselves and in their relationships with each other, especially the poor and vulnerable.

Because he wanted test Jesus further and to prove his own (self-) righteousness, the legal scholar asked him to define what it meant to be a neighbor. It was then that Jesus demonstrated that he not only knew what the law was but also understood what the law really meant. At the heart of the covenant between God and his people was the simplest commandment to remember and one of the hardest to follow: love.

In Psalm 19, we are reminded that God’s words are “spirit and life;” and God’s laws are described as perfect, trustworthy, right, clear, pure, true, precious and sweeter than syrup or honey. Aren’t these also various facets of love??

Of course, it is easy to love in the abstract. As Dostoevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” Few things would be harsher or more dreadful than finding the victim of a robbery on the side of the street horribly beaten, stripped naked, and left for dead. But that’s exactly what the three men in the parable found as they traveled on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho.

The priest and Levite—two reputed “experts” on the law—“passed by on the opposite side” of the road. Their motivations aren’t explained in this gospel passage. However, some Bible scholars have speculated that perhaps they were trying to avoid risking ritual impurity by touching an apparently dead body. Others have suggested more practical reason: to avoid a possible ambush and being victimized themselves. Whatever may have been going through their minds, and no matter how much it may have made sense from a legal or practical point of view, they chose not to get involved. They decided it was none of their business.

By contrast, the Samaritan—who would have been considered a “half-breed” and unorthodox or even a heretic by the priest and Levite—made it his business to help some one in need; and he did more than call 911! “Moved with compassion,” he rendered first aid to the victim, took him to an inn, helped him some more, and then left him in the care of others with a promise to cover the entire bill. Would Medicare, your insurance company or your HMO do that?

As Moses taught the people of Israel in his final sermon to them, following God’s word and law aren’t too difficult to grasp. “No,” he admonished them, “it is already something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.” God later underscored that message by sending his Son: the living embodiment of his love and as St. Paul describes in our second reading “the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation.”

As followers of Jesus, our first commandment is to love. As the example of Michael Marrocco reminds us, it simply needs to be done; and through the saving grace of the cross and our baptism, we can be the ones best prepared to do it. +

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Homily for 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time: Inter-dependence Day

Today our country celebrates an important event in our nation’s history: the Continental Congress’ approval of our Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. To some extent, it also celebrates a myth, for no person much less any country, can be completely independent. This is especially true today, when technology enables children here in the USA to learn in the same virtual classrooms as their counterparts in China, South Africa and Brazil and the economic woes of Greece and Portugal cause anxieties on Wall Street.

It was also true in 1776. Our founders recognized this even in their Declaration when they wrote:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,—That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government….
We are dependent on each other; and the government we have is more or less the government we choose—or at least the government we tolerate. Our most fundamental rights are gifts from our Creator. The recent BP Oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has caused some tensions between Great Britain and its former colony; but our nations’ leaders recognize that we still have a ”special relationship.” We’re still trading partners. The roots of our legal system are thoroughly British. We have been allies in two world wars and today we are fighting together in the Middle East. We are, in truth, far more interdependent than we are independent.

If our independence is something of a myth in our relations with people and nations, it is undeniably so in our relationship with God. In the extreme, it is the definition of hell itself: eternal separation from God. The people of Israel had their own bitter taste of this during their exile to Babylon. As a result of their own idolatry, their desires for earthly power, and their desire for independence from God and his covenant, God allowed them to be overwhelmed by a stronger enemy. Their best and brightest were carried off to a foreign land. Jerusalem was laid waste and the Temple—the place where they believed God would forever dwell as their protector—was destroyed.

As they returned to a place they could barely recognize, God offered a word of comfort. In our First Reading from Isaiah, the prophet uses the image of a mother breastfeeding and comforting her child—the antithesis of independence. We depend on God. As St. Paul once proclaimed to the people of Athens, quoting one of their poets, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28a).

Having experienced true freedom in Christ, Paul wanted to contrast the boasting/pride that some put in circumcision and their adherence to the Law of Moses with his own reliance on the saving power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. For Paul, the mark of circumcision was an illusory sign of “do-it-yourself salvation,” while his own “marks of Jesus” were a sign of what Christ had done for him through his cross and resurrection and the cost of responding to that grace.

Just as there is no such thing as “do-it-yourself” salvation, there is no “do-it-yourself” discipleship or church. Jesus recognized this himself when he appointed seventy-two more disciples to complement the work of the Twelve. He saw that the potential harvest of those who could be transformed by the proclamation of the gospel was far greater than the number of disciples sharing in his work of preaching, teaching and healing. He was well on his way to Jerusalem, he knew that his time was running out, and he needed to hand on his mission to others who would continue to carry it out—and to do so together.

In an era in which there are over a billion Catholics worldwide and even more people whom the Church could reach with the Good News, we are finally starting to take seriously the need to rely not just on priests, deacons and religious but also lay men and women, young and old, to be ministers who are:

Nourished by a “full, conscious and active participation” in the liturgy (Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy 14).

Trained to claim their baptismal roles as “everyday evangelists.”

Ready to step up with urgency, wishing peace and relying on Providence to supply their needs—a bold act of faith in an era when many churches in places like Saginaw are trying to survive and thrive in a tough economy.

Trusting that the Lord will also give them the power they need to triumph over the serpents of doubt, the scorpions of despair, and the “full force of the enemy,” in whatever form it may take.

In concluding the Declaration of Independence our nation’s founders wrote:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our fortunes and our sacred Honor.
Even in declaring their independence from a king, they had to acknowledge their dependence on God. May we not forget it, either. +

Sunday, June 27, 2010

11th Week Ordinary Time: Detachment, Doggedness, and Determination

As I began writing this homily in Detroit, our city was preparing to welcome over 10,000 people for the US Social Forum. According to a newspaper report, organizers described the gathering as a “movement building process…the next most important step in our struggle to build a powerful multiracial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational, diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and changes history.” The more that I reflected on this description, the more uncomfortable I became.

After a few moments, the source of my discomfort seized me: “Isn’t this what the Church is supposed to be?” I asked myself. Perhaps not totally, and certainly not in the same way, but the Church itself is called to be a diverse-and-united (i.e., Catholic) agent of transforming not merely our own nation and society but the entire world. As the Second Vatican Council proclaimed in Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World (40):
Pursuing the saving purpose which is proper to her, the Church does not only communicate divine life to men but in some way casts the reflected light of that life over the entire earth, most of all by its healing and elevating impact on the dignity of the person, by the way in which it strengthens the seams of human society and imbues the everyday activity of men with a deeper meaning and importance. Thus through her individual matters and her whole community, the Church believes she can contribute greatly toward making the family of man and its history more human.
Our scripture readings on this Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time call us to be disciples who, by our own personal witness and growth in holiness as well as our diverse gifts and ministries, fulfill this mission of transformation—not according to any particular secular or political agenda but instead according to the gospel. It is not a mission that we should assume lightly, for it requires detachment, doggedness, and dedication.

In our first reading, we read of Elisha’s radical detachment in response to receiving the call to succeed Elijah in his prophetic ministry. This call was symbolized by Elijah throwing his cloak over Elisha and is the origin of the phrase, “passing the mantle,” which refers to the transfer of power or office from one person to another.

Elisha’s initial response was conditional, asking at least the opportunity to say good-bye to his parents. But Elijah’s rhetorical response—“Go back! Have I done anything to you?”—dared Elisha to make a radical choice for the ministry that had been handed on to him, and he did. He not only left his business behind, he destroyed it! It is harder to turn back when there is nothing left to which one can return.

St. Paul called a young church in Galatia to doggedness in sustaining their commitment to the gospel that he preached and the freedom that they had been given through the grace of God. He found them resubmitting themselves to “the yoke of slavery,” that is the Law of Moses and more specifically circumcision.

For Paul, this was a trap. “Once again,” he wrote to them, “I declare to every man who has himself circumcised that he is bound to observe the entire law. You are separated from Christ, you who are trying to be justified by the law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4). Because it was impossible to fulfill all the stipulations of the law, Paul reasoned, anyone who placed themselves under it was simultaneously yoking themselves to a lifetime of futility and a future with no salvation. They could not save themselves. Only God could save them; but paradoxically in that dependence there was true freedom.

This is the freedom that we have all been given through baptism. With this freedom, however, there is also responsibility. Paul warns us, as he warned the Galatians, to “not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh [the Greek, sarx, i.e., our human tendency toward self-indulgence, self-aggrandizement, and selfishness]; rather, serve one another through love.” Love and service are both the means and the manifestations of the holiness to which we are all called as individual believers and as a Church.

It is this loving service that Jesus embodied in his own dedication to the mission that the Father had given him. Today’s gospel passage from Luke 9 follows his first two predictions of his death (vv. 22, 43-45); his explanation of the conditions of discipleship (vv. 23-27); his Transfiguration (vv. 28-36); a manifestation of his power over the forces of evil (vv. 37-43); and his redefinition of greatness (vv. 46-48).

Near the peak of his own power and popularity, Jesus nonetheless “resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem,” where his mission would be fulfilled not on a throne but on a cross. He wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted, not even by the slights of some Samaritans, and he prepared his disciples to do the same, refusing their calls for vengeance on their religious and ethnic rivals and calling them to be ready for a life of discomfort and to cut even family ties to follow him, if those proved to be an obstacle.

That is a “hard word” for us to hear, but it is no less real. The life of a disciple of Christ is filled with graces and blessings; but we fool ourselves if we think it will not be without trials. Once we put our hands to the plow, Jesus admonishes us, we had better be ready to heed the words of the old Spiritual and civil rights anthem: “Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on, hold on!” +