Saturday, July 20, 2019

Suffering with Christ for His Church

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time
20-21 July 2019
St. Mary’s Parish in Sioux Falls 

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…”  Those are St. Paul’s words from the second reading from today’s Mass. I know it is usually the Gospel just read which draws the attention of the preacher and his listeners, but I think I want to go with the second reading.

Most folks are quite familiar, maybe even overly familiar with the Gospel message: “Martha, Martha!... Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.” From the words of Jesus we come to understand that hospitality is really something great, but the heart of hospitality is attentiveness to your guest. Jesus kind of shook His finger at Martha, because she allowed herself to be stressed with Jesus and other guests in her house, caught up as she was in the form of it all. Martha meant well, but she was missing out on Jesus and His words. "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me." …“Martha, Martha!... Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.”

As I say, I hope you won’t mind if I leave aside Martha and Mary, as well as Abraham and Sarah from the Book of Genesis, as they entertain the three strangers under the tree. I want to go with the second reading, which according to the pattern for Ordinary Time is a continuous reading from Sunday to Sunday. We are in chapter one of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians. This passage has nothing to do with hospitality and attentively serving guests. I want to privilege St. Paul’s words, because where I come from in Switzerland and in not too few places around the world Catholic people, today especially, really need to hear what St. Paul is saying and reform their lives. Too few people today understand what it means to share in the Cross of Christ. They need to make a bigger turnaround than did Martha fussing over serving her guests.

What is St. Paul talking about here in his letter to the Colossians? He’s talking about the mission proper to a minister of the Church on behalf of God’s People. The key word to describe that mission is neither leadership, nor authority, not even the word service. Paul says he is called to suffering for the sake of the people. He has to make up for what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of the salvation of the world. Paul talks about a stewardship on behalf of the people which is grounded in a suffering like unto that of Christ on the Cross.

Granted, St. Paul’s message is obvious to most Christians, but I would maintain only maybe obvious, just as long as the suffering part doesn’t really come to the fore. Both priests and people tend to have unreasonable expectations of the role which the Church should play in our lives. We tend to shortchange the message of Christ’s Cross as central to the Christian life. You might say that we are not as Pauline as we should be. 

  In Europe the season of priestly ordinations and first Masses has just come to an end for 2019. One of the customs tied in his home parish to the celebration of the ordination of a new priest in some parts of German speaking Europe at least, which as far as I know did not come over with our ancestors, or at least never caught on here in South Dakota, is that of setting up and dedicating a cross, as big as the central cross in most of our cemeteries, somewhere along a lane or a walking path near the village of the new priest. I think they generally call it a First Mass Cross. As a symbol, everyone understands the meaning of this cross and that it is not just the family, but the whole town which is proud of this young man now set aside for God’s service as a priest.

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake…”  No doubt the symbolism of priesthood and Cross is right, but you wonder how often either the young man in his priesthood or the people of his home parish think about how that cross is supposed to mark his call to suffer for the people just like Jesus did and just as St. Paul felt himself called to do.  “…in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God's stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past.”

In a sense this is what is at the heart of the novel by Georges Bernanos, entitled “Diary of a Country Priest”. There is nothing particularly appetizing or rewarding about the life of the young priest in the story, but at the end he dies confident in God’s grace, somehow freed from all the sickness and hunger, the frustrations and sorrows which had plagued his very short life as a seemingly unsuccessful rural pastor.

Everyone has his or her own theory about the vocation shortage which plagues the Church today. Some people will blame it on the lack of faith in the families, others will say that affluence is the killer: that our young people are too materialistic. Other people are convinced that the abuse crisis is what has done us in. I won’t discount any of that, but will ask you for a moment to focus on St. Paul and embracing suffering. I mean that not only in terms of vocations to the priesthood and sisterhood, but for the Christian life in general. Much of the crisis afflicting Christian family life and the sacrament of Matrimony has to do with our being held bound by old Lucifer’s refusal to serve the Lord, his “non serviam”, Satan’s I will not serve.

This year I met a marvelous older gentleman, who subsequent to the event which he invited me to in a parish in central Switzerland, sent me a letter to explain a bit more about his background, about the profound conversion which took place in his life following his divorce. The sense of this conversion might be expressed in the notion that following all that had gone wrong in his life and marriage, he finally embraced the Cross. He never remarried and I think it safe to say he is happy because he has found his consolation in Christ.

As strange as it may seem, I guess if I had a wish for your new pastor it would be that together with St. Paul he could wholeheartedly embrace Christ’s Cross and thereby offer his people, you, not only an example of Christian perfection, but of true and lasting joy.

May Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, whom we venerate as the Sorrowful Mother, stand by us and lead us to Paradise at the foot of her Son’s Cross!


Renewing all Things in Christ

A news item from Germany, reported in (the Swiss Catholic News Service) annoyed me today (here). “Annoyed” is indeed the right word, because it neither worried me nor troubled me. The topic as such should be worrying or troubling, namely that 2018 marked a new record high for people leaving the major churches, Catholic and Protestant, in Germany. We’ll know the statistical results for Switzerland come September. 

But rather I was annoyed, because the statistics offered the author of the article occasion to push for a sort of church reform that is not reform at all but innovation. It is sort of like pretending that you would be more appealing as a person if you could just be somehow different, as in: try a facelift, try Botox, try a tummy tuck, try various implants, and why not a sex change while you’re at it! If people are truly running away from authentic Catholic, then why should I try and run after them? My odds of catching them and winning them over through pandering are practically null. Jumping ship is not what reform is about.  Reform, if it is what we need, has to do with returning to faithfulness and begging pardon for past sins and failings. Reform involves making reparation, something profound, much more than a costume change.

Reforming a life, reforming Church practice is sort of like church architecture and the difference between vulgar barren concrete or whitewashed boxy spaces of the contemporary sort. It is no less obvious than is the difference between a 1970’s wreckovation and some of the restorations such as at our Cathedral here in Sioux Falls, which have been successfully completed in recent years. One of the joys of living in Switzerland is my having had the privilege of celebrating Mass according to the traditional form (Vetus Ordo) in old and for the most part untouched churches, some of them truly magnificent worship spaces, both big ones and small. Herein we are talking about more than beauty in the sense of adornment; we’re talking about a relative perfection in lines and proportion. 

The mentioned article is obviously of a neo-modernist bent, pushing its own little mythology about innovation and change being the necessary trajectory of life. It is hard for most folks to balk at such when your whole life long it has been drummed into you that the progressive thing is to move forward never looking back. It’s a message at total odds with the rootedness which should be ours in Christ. The unseen God has manifest Himself in the Son; Jesus of Nazareth is not to be invented or sought out on some sort of quest into the unknown. We know Him and watch for His coming again in glory upon the clouds of heaven. As the angels announced on the Ascension Mount, this same one will return as you saw Him going.  “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased; hear Him.”

Be gone, tired old innovators! Make room for restoration, for a rediscovery of God’s Anointed One!