Archive for October, 2012|Monthly archive page

WHAT THE CHURCH NEEDS NOW

Burt Bacharach told us  “what the world needs now is love, sweet love.”  Maybe if we translated the lyric into Latin and substituted the word church for world, an important message for this day and age might begin to circulate.  Excuse me if I sound cynical, naïve, or simplistic.  But I happen to think love is what we need now.  The vision of church emerging ought to be of a people pouring themselves out in loving service of Christ through loving service of the poor in whom Christ lives.  Instead, the image seems to be of an institution increasingly out of touch with the people and the times and bent on restoring hierarchical splendor and a separatist clericalism that sees the ordained priests in their ontological difference as being above and apart from the laity.  The Priesthood of the Baptized does not seem to matter nearly as much.

Some people laugh when they hear that the second largest denomination in the United States is Former Catholics, sometimes called recovering Catholics.  For the time being the largest denomination remains Catholics.  But if the rate of departure cited by the Pew reports continues, the Formers may overtake the Practicing Catholics.  What is interesting is that the primary reason Catholics stop practicing, especially those who move to another denomination, is that they do not find their faith supported by church practices.  Take that to mean that they do not experience the preaching as a breaking open of the Word that applies the Word to their lived experience, calling them to live the mystery of Christ in the market place.  The preaching does not bring them to Eucharist.  Pomposity doesn’t impress.  That’s odd too, given the materialism of these times and the constant lauding of the quest for wealth and power.  There is a reason why so many identify with and claim to be disciples of Ayn Rand.  Objectivism is all about the primacy of self with no sense of responsibility for the needs of the poor.

The whole church could benefit from pondering St. Francis of Assisi.  See him as he stood before the bishop and stripped himself of everything he had, all signs of his father’s wealth, and, standing in his nakedness, he announced he had wedded Lady Poverty.  Granted, his actions were extreme and not everyone is called to the absoluteness of his stand.  But detachment might be something we should think about.  Being detached frees us considerably.

If Francis is too remote or too idealized, then we might contemplate Archbishop Oscar Romero who, in an action similar to Francis’s, left his privileged comforts and the elite with whom he was associated, and walked out into the streets of El Salvador to stand with the disenfranchised poor.  You know how his life ended.  He was shot to death as he celebrated mass in a hospital chapel.  His voice had become too loud and the poor were beginning to feel valued and empowered.  Strange how to this day his voice continues to be heard throughout El Salvador calling for reform.  Sisters, brothers, and lay people have been martyred in the course of their witness in South America and Africa, too.  There are many in our country who witness in solidarity with the poor, sisters primary among them.  They may not have had to shed their blood for the cause, but they pour themselves out in loving service, educating the young and ministering to the sick.  Their stories need to be told and their experiences ought to have considerable impact on the preaching.

A new commandment I give you.  Love one another…  By this will all know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Jesus never said his call would be easy to follow or that he would be easy to imitate – but he is the standard for our call to love.  Love one another as I have loved you.  How many would-be disciples, turned and walked away then and do so now when the demands of discipleship became clear to them?  The rich young man who had kept all the commandments from his youth walked away sad when Jesus urged him to sell what he had and give to the poor before following him.  Wealth had a powerful allure even then.  And Peter who thought Jesus would soon emerge as a powerful Messiah to drive out foreign rule and in setting up his kingdom just might find a prominent position for Peter, suffered reprimand from Jesus when Peter expressed horror at Jesus’ prediction of his coming suffering and death.  Jesus commanded Peter to stand behind him and learn what it meant to imitate him in service of the poor.

I read an interesting article recently that described the numbers of young people eager and willing to go on mission work.  They’re not afraid of squalor in Africa, Asia, India, or South America.  They present as being comfortable among the poorest and the most disabled.  They speak of loving Christ and of being transformed by their service.  And many of them don’t go to church.  There is an obvious disconnect.  But whose fault is that?  I don’t think it is theirs.

The pedophilia scandals have rocked the church and challenged the faith of many.  In Ireland, the abuse of boys and girls by priests and nuns and the seeming complicity by silence of some bishops have resulted in empty churches in that very Catholic land.  The acts of atonement by the Archbishop of Dublin, including his washing the feet of wounded parishioners are seen as the first steps of restoration and healing.

Some questions regarding sexual morality need to be re-examined.  If I am not mistaken, over 90% of Catholics ignore the church’s teaching on artificial contraception.  Ignoring pronouncements on that issue has closed ears to other issues as well.  It is a matter of relating to people and to their needs and concerns.  The people’s understanding of sex seems to have grown beyond what is being taught.  A wider understanding that goes beyond openness to conception is part and parcel of the common thinking.  That needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.  So, too, the question of homosexuality and the intrinsic need that homosexual people have for intimate relationship.  It was Genesis that proclaimed that it is not good for the human to be alone.  The church must listen to the lived experience of these people and acknowledge that their orientation is not a matter of choice, and hear also their desire to enter into loving and committed relationships.

The Second Vatican Council declared that Eucharistic Liturgy is the source and summit of our lived faith.  The Council also declared that the baptized are called to full, active, and conscious participation in the Liturgy.  In declaring the church to be the People of God and the Body of Christ, the imminence of Christ was proclaimed : Christ present in the Assembly; Christ present in the Word; Christ present in the presider.  In that, there is no denial of Christ’s transcendence.  Rather, there is an acknowledgment, indeed proclamation of both realities.

Many of those no longer going to Sunday mass or those leaving the Catholic Church for other denominations, are doing so because their faith is not being supported by the Liturgical experience.  They remember the days when the invitation to enter into Liturgy was a call for the Assembly to unite in their gathering around the Table of the Word and the Table of the Eucharist to experience the Spirit’s transforming power.  Now they experience a distancing.  The preaching seems to be a challenge to be good so that they will merit heaven, rather than a breaking open of the Word to empower them to bring that Good News to the world to transform it and bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth.  They are no longer co-celebrants of the Liturgy.  The return of the tabernacle from reservation chapels to the area of the altar refocus the purpose of the gathering from celebrating the dying and rising of Jesus in the Eucharist to the adoration of Christ in the reserved sacrament.  It is not uncommon for most of the Assembly to receive Holy Communion via the reserved Sacrament rather than from the Eucharistic Bread from the mass they are attending.  They are not allowed full participation in the Eucharist.

A few weeks ago, I came out from mass with a friend.  I had said nothing, but was conscious of the fact that my teeth had been grinding through the homily and through the Eucharistic prayer.  And my stomach churned.  My friend whispered as we exited the church, “I think I missed mass again.”  That was my sense as well.

I find myself reflecting on the lived experience of the early church when the faithful gathered around tables in homes and prayed with the Scriptures and broke Bread together.  Humble abodes were appropriate gathering places for people whose poverty imitated Christ’s.  These were the days before the church became regal in Constantine’s reign.  A return to pre-Constantinian simplicity and poverty might not be a bad idea.  We’ll have to wait and watch and then follow where the Spirit leads.  In the meantime there is hope as the world recognizes that what it needs is love.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 28, 2012

 

The Book of the Prophet Jeremiah 31:7-9

The Letter to the Hebrews 5:1-6

The holy Gospel according to Mark 10:46-52

The end of October brings with it the astounding realization that we are nearing the end of another Church year.  The current Year began with the First Sunday of Advent on November 27, 2011.  On that Sunday the first words we heard from the Gospel of Mark were: Be watchful!  Be alert!  You do not know when the time will come.  So began this journey we have been on Sunday after Sunday, intensified each time we gathered for the Liturgy of the Word and heard the Good News according to Mark proclaimed and had it broken open for us in the homily.  Each Sunday we had the opportunity to stand naked and vulnerable before the Word and let it penetrate the core of our being to draw us deeper into relationship with Jesus with whom we journeyed as he transformed us and led us to new life.  Our faith was challenged, as was our hope as we were urged to live in love the way Jesus does.

There is something about faith that assures us that promises given will be fulfilled.  Along the Way this year, were you watchful?  Were you alert?  What realizations crystallized?  What changes did you have to make?  How different are you today from the person you were last December?

Place yourself in that assembly gathered before Jeremiah in today’s first reading.  There needs to be a context, of course, for his words to have their impact.  Judah, i.e., Israel, is in exile and has been subjected to many trials during the Babylonian captivity.  Many of their number have wandered away from the Torah and begun to follow the ways of Baal.  Some, many in fact, remained faithful.  Years later they were released and allowed to return to Jerusalem to reclaim and reconstruct their holy city.  Huge is the task before them.  Jeremiah does his part to encourage them by prophesying that it is the Lord who has done this just as the Lord promised.  They departed in tears, but I will console them and guide them; I will lead them to brooks of water, on a level road, so that none shall stumble.  I am a father to Israel; Ephraim (a tribe of Israel) is my first-born.  With God no situation is hopeless.  God, whose love is constant and unconditional, will not disappoint.  Do you believe that?  It takes time to come to that conclusion.  Don’t despair if you are not there yet.  That is what this journey with Jesus is about for us, our being formed in faith.

In the gospel we meet Bartimaeus, a blind man.  Mark tells us Bartimaeus is the son of Timaeus.  That kind of specificity usually means that the one cited is a believer.  Bartimaeus is the son of a disciple and not yet a believer himself.  He is in desperate straits, begging by the roadside, when he hears the ruckus as Jesus and his disciples and a sizable crowd pass by on their way to Jericho.  Notice that it is Jesus with disciples, i.e., those who have made a faith-decision about Jesus, and a sizable crowd, i.e., those who have not yet made up their minds about Jesus.  Bartimaeus makes an embarrassing scene as he tries to get Jesus’ attention.  Jesus, son of David, have pity on me.  Some try to quiet Bartimaeus, but Jesus, hearing the plaintive crying out says to those near by: Call him.

This is a very important detail not to be missed.  Bartimaeus does not come to Jesus alone but is brought to Jesus by those who can see, those who urge him not to be afraid.  After all, it is Jesus who calls.  (What does that say about our faith communities?  See the implications for the RCIA process?)  Another important detail might be missed if we do not listen attentively.  (Bartimaeus) threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.  He is willing to give up everything to come to Jesus.  It is much more than a garment that Bartimaeus gave up.  The cloak provides shade from the intense sun and shelter from the rain.  It is his tent under which he sleeps through the night.  More than likely, the cloak is all he has.

Have you ever wondered how you would deal with it were you to find that magic jug, rub it, and have the emerging Genie tell you, you have three wishes that the Genie will grant you?  What would you ask for?  Last week Jesus asked James and John what they wanted.  They asked for the most prominent positions in Jesus’ kingdom and withered when Jesus revealed the implications of their request that they would have to drink of the cup from which he will drink and be baptized in his baptism.  In other words, following Jesus will not result for James and John in power and position, comfort and wealth, being a disciple will be about the pouring out of self in service and imitating Jesus in his dying.  Walking with Jesus will entail a cross.

This week Jesus asks Bartimaeus: What do you want me to do for you?  And Bartimaeus’ answer is simple and straightforward with a second title for Jesus.  Master, I want to see.  It would be easy to conclude the Bartimaeus is asking simply for the restoration of his sight.  But that would not necessarily result in his being able to see.  Something more profound is happening here.  It is all summed up in the terse conclusion to this pericope.  When Jesus tells Bartimaeus to go on his way because his faith has saved him, immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.  Bartimaeus’s being is changed.  Whatever had kept him from sharing the faith of his father, whatever hurdle he could not get over, whatever it was, that blindness falls away and he sees Jesus as Lord.  He follows Jesus on the way, which means he is willing to go where the Way leads.  He will drink from the cup from which Jesus will drink.  He will be baptized in Jesus’ baptism.  Jesus will be his all-in-all.  You notice that nothing is said about Bartimaeus’s going back to pick up his cloak.

It is important to ask yourself where you are in this gospel.  With which character do you most closely identify?  Jesus?  Someone in the crowd?  A disciple?  Bartimaeus?  If the truth be known and we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we can identify with each character.  There is something of each one in each of us.  The hardest to admit is our identity with Jesus.  Our pride gets in the way of that.  Not humility, but pride.  We’ll talk about that later.

We have to remember that as long as we are on the way we are in the process of conversion.  That’s why I asked at the start, where were you in your faith life last November when we began this journey with Mark’s Gospel.  That is why some days we wonder if we believe yet, if by our lives we can say Jesus is Lord of my life.  On other days something wells within us, we call it grace and the life of the Spirit, and we know we believe, that we are disciples willing to follow and try to imitate Jesus.  But what about Bartimaeus?  For that we have to journey back to the day we first knew we believed.  For many of us, that involved a struggle.  There were things we had to work through, life-decisions we had to make, emptiness we had to admit, cloaks we had to toss aside.  The day we recognized that we could not do this alone, that we needed others to support us and encourage us along the way because there was something preventing us from being able to see and, therefore, to believe, that was the day we could identify with Bartimaeus.  So were we the day we had to let go of everything and let Jesus be Lord of our lives.  We had to find the humility to let go and let Jesus enter.

A couple of final points in conclusion.  The Church very wisely sees our faith journey as communal.  That is what distinguishes the Catholic (communal) Way from the Protestant (individual) Way.  We believe that the Church is the people of God.  We are united in the process of ongoing conversion along the way.  We assemble around the tables of the Word and of the Eucharist to be nourished and transformed, just as the bread and wine are, into the Body of Christ.  The assembly is the Body of Christ just as is the Eucharist.  We are sent as the Body of Christ to continue Christ’s work until he comes again.

The RCIA process is a glorious expression of these convictions.  The ones seeking faith come to the community and in the midst of the community experience what it means to worship and know the love of God.  It is through the experience of the community that they come to know what it means to be a servant church.  Through the community they experience forgiveness and reconciliation, a new faith and the renewal of hope.  The community supports the seekers through prayerand example.  The seekers come to know that the church is always there for them even as they come to know that all are welcome here.  It is important that the seekers make the full journey, i.e., journey along the way through an entire Chruch Year.

Then, in that most holy of nights, when all the old has been consumed in the fire and from that fire comes the light of the Easter Candle that proclaims Christ risen and glorious, surrounded by the faithful, Bartimaeus enters the waters to die there and rise from there identified with Christ to live as Christ until he enters Christ’s glory forever.

Sincerely,

Didymus

WHO KNOWS WHAT TOMORROW MAY BRING?

 

It is my privilege these days to be ministering to a support group for caregivers of Alzheimer’s patients.  In every case but one, the caregivers tend to the needs of their spouses.  In one case a woman takes care of her mother.  This is my first real exposure to this terrible disease.  Certainly I have read about Alzheimer’s and have seen a few very touching movies depicting the struggles and heartbreaks that come into people’s lives when this kind of dementia begins to emerge.  Romantic drama is one thing.  To hear the lived experiences is quite another.

May I say that I have been humbled by these encounters?  The love and devotion of each of these caregivers are apparent.  In most cases the loved one no longer recognizes who the spouse of daughter is.  I struggled to keep the tears from flowing the first times I listened to the sharing.  While they spoke of the difficulties involved in being the primary caregiver, no one gave the slightest hint of resentment.  Some said that they welcomed relief when they were able to find home-care assistance from time to time.  Others, whose spouses where in residential care, spoke of making the daily journey to the center, wondering as they drove whether the loved one would recognize them today or whether there would be evidence of further descent into the terrible void.

Memories are treasured.  It isn’t so much that the caregivers are living in the past.  The pictures and letters and the memories that in one case stretch over 63 years serve to fill in what is missing now.  There are teachers, doctors, nurses, educators, a concert pianist and an attorney among the patients.  All seem to have had stellar careers.  The pride in the caregivers is obvious.  For all of them the wonderful times seem like only yesterday.  But that is not so.  Most have been caring for the loved ones for at least a decade.  In one case, the saga has been going on for 14 years.  In two of the cases, Alzheimer’s began to emerge when the patients were in their forties.  It is only popular myth that Alzheimer’s afflicts solely the aged.  Imagine the pain for a 9-year-old coming to realize that her mother doesn’t know her any more.  And there is nothing that can be done to restore that recognition.

Caregiver after caregiver says in one way or another that of course they will continue serving as they are until death comes.  After all, that was the commitment that was made in the wedding vows.  That is amazing to hear in this age of casual relationships, of infidelity, and of frequent divorce.  They do what they do because they promised before God and their faith communities to love, honor and cherish the love of their life for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.  None of them imagined that Alzheimer’s would be in the hand life dealt.

After several of these sessions I have found myself reflecting their issues in the light of Baptism.  When a person comes to the Font to be Baptized a commitment is being made to walk with Christ, to act in, with, and through Christ, to be Christ’s other self.  Like marriage vows, it might seem easy to make the baptismal promises.  After all, what struggles could there possibly be when one walks with Christ?  We forget that Jesus told the parable of the sower who went out to sow the seeds.  You know how the story goes.  The seeds fall in various places.  Some are trod one as they sprout.  Birds eat others.  And still others are choked by weeds.  But some do flourish in rich soil and grow to yield a rich harvest.  The analogy fits well over those who go down into the waters of Baptism.  For some the journey will be short, as distractions will lure them to former ways of life or other things that dazzle them.  Others will go after a new or different teacher and way of life that allows them to wrap themselves in contemporary goals and values.  Others will get bored and simply lose interest.  But some remember the promises and remain faithful to them for the rest of their lives, living as Christ’s followers, loving others as Christ loves them, helping to build the Kingdom of God until Christ comes again.

The caregivers among whom I minister are people of faith.  They bear witness of seeing the hand of God in so much that happens.  While I do not think that God afflicts people with Alzheimer’s and more than that God sends other illnesses and evils into people’s lives, I do believe that God is in those moments bearing the sorrows with the afflicted and supporting them with love.

Recently a man spoke about his wife’s final days.  Pneumonia set in.  Doctors urged him to let them take some extraordinary means to save her life.  But he told the group that he was convinced the pneumonia was Christ’s gift to his wife.  He refused the doctor’s requests and held his wife’s hand as she breathed her last.  He was faithful to the end.  His voice choked as he told the story, but clearly he was at peace.

It is a blessing to be able to minister among these people, to be stirred by their stories, and to marvel at their strength.  The added bonus, of course, is that I find my own faith is being bolstered by their witnessing to their faith.  I am humbled to be invited to journey with them during these hours of sharing faith stories.

Some people are embarrassed by encounters with disabled people and shut themselves off lest they have to deal with them.  Some faith communities think that sitters should stay with the disabled in hospitality rooms so that there will not be distractions for the assembly to have to contend with during mass.  It seems to me that the disabled ought to be encouraged to engage in ministries that they are able to carry out.  There have been blind lectors, and Down syndrome ushers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.  There have been mentally disabled Greeters and Ushers.  To the extent that the disabled are evident in the Assembly does the Assembly give evidence of being the Body of Christ.

Advanced Alzheimer’s patients obviously would not be able to minister.  But as long as they are able to be brought to worship they ought to be welcomed.  The Assembly ought to be mature enough not to be embarrassed by the occasional mishap or mistake.  After all, the patients are the beloved of God.

If you have the opportunity to volunteer to work with the disabled, Alzheimer’s patients among them, welcome the opportunity.  Remember when Jesus urged his disciples to be generous in good works because the measure they measure out will be measured back to them?  Believe me, that’s what happens when you serve the physically or mentally impaired.  Unimaginable returns will come to you as your own faith is strengthened.  You might even come to see yourself in a whole different light.  You will find Christ to be more evident in the midst of your serving.  And you will know that you are loved even as you help to build the Kingdom.

Who knows what tomorrow may bring?  Whatever it is, with Christ you will be strengthened be at peace.

Sincerely,

Didymus