We have lost our way.
20th Sunday B 8/19/18 provb9; eph5; jn6:51-58 JMayzik SJ
I got home Wednesday night from a short vacation with my sister and her family in a remote mountain lodge in Vermont. We were blessed--and I do mean blessed-- to be without any phone or internet service. We put aside our cellphones, our laptops and our iPads, and spent the days hiking, swimming, and reading and chatting on long porches with beautiful views of the lake. We played board games with other families, and we even had a wonderful sing-along night, led by my three nieces, that brought many smiles, good, hearty laughter, and even a few tears. And we had wonderful family-style meals with other guests of the lodge, and learned about their lives. There is something very special about sharing a meal with family and new friends. Passing the corn, and the meatloaf and the pie to one another, making sure everyone has enough, and is filled.
More than a few times I sat back and watched these moments of community and newfound family amidst the beauty of nature and sensed the sacredness of it all. I really believe that the Holy Spirit was knitting us together, reminding us that we need one another much more than we need Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and text messages and emails and all the rest of the blather to which we have become addicted. Any time that people are gathered together in openness and kindness, when they are sharing themselves amidst laughter and tears, when they are listening to one another and feeling their common humanity, you can be sure the Holy Spirit is there making the moment holy and sacred.
It was so nice being there I lingered a bit too long, and I left at 10pm to drive back to New York to be sure I was here for Mass on Thursday. I drove through the night listening to some really rocking music, including some awesome Christian songs, and found myself thanking God for so many things in my life, including all of you.
After I got back into the rectory, even though it was nearing 4am, I made the mistake of checking my cellphone before I went to bed. I stumbled across the story about the grand jury report in Pennsylvania that confirmed over 1000 identifiable victims of child sexual abuse by more than 300 priests in that state, and the years of coverup regarding those cases. There was reference to last month’s news about Cardinal McCarrick, and other reports about abuse suffered by religious sisters at the hands of priests.
The more I read, the more upset and angry I got, and even though I was pretty tired, I couldn’t sleep. The hypocrisy of it all, the systemic corruption, the routine business of hiding the ugly truth, the pain inflicted on so many—it is another body blow to our family, with the prospect of more to come.
I was still feeling it when I celebrated the 12:10 Mass where the Gospel recounts Peter asking Jesus how many times he should forgive someone who had sinned against him. ‘Seven times?’, Peter asked. Jesus shook his head and said, ‘not seven times, but seventy seven times,’ meaning that there should be no limit to the forgiveness we offer our sinful brothers and sisters.
But I have to tell you that I’m really challenged to find a way to forgive the men and the institution and its leaders who sinned so horrendously against all those people—children, seminarians, sisters. If I were one of those kids, or their mother or father or son or daughter or brother or sister or just a friend of one of them, that kind of divine forgiveness would be very very hard for me to muster up.
And I thought about a film called Calvary, where a good Irish priest is killed by a victim who had been abused by another priest when he was a child. The victim tells the priest that he knows he is innocent of such terrible things, but that justice calls for his execution: an innocent priest’s life taken to pay for the loss of innocence of a child. It’s a powerful film, and it represents righteous anger against a church that has lost its way.
I’ve been all over the place, thinking about this corruption and evil in the church. There have been moments when I think we should encourage more grand jury reports, no matter what rot they reveal, no matter how many priests and bishops are arrested--clean the house completely. I’ve been horrified when I have considered the permanent damage that has been done to so many by those who have been ordained to represent the love of Jesus. I wonder how much of this would have happened if there were women in all levels of leadership of the church, and if priests were allowed to be married. I think you can make a good case that power and pride and a magnified focus on sex have fueled much of this individual and corporate sin.
I have also tried to remember the great gifts that the institution of the Church has given to the world—certainly it is not all sinful, and the Holy Spirit has clearly been operating within it. The Catholic Church is and has always been an incredibly life-giving and loving-giving institution. Think about all the hospitals, nursing homes, orphanages, grade schools, high schools and universities that have healed, cared for, educated millions and millions of people. I don't think there has been any other institution that has stood up for the poor, the sick, the broken, the unloved, the dying in the face of a world that often values wealth and power over the holiness of every single person. But of course, this same institution and many of its leaders have also at times fallen for the same empty values, and in the process has hurt many innocent people.
However we get beyond this moment, I think that the Church will probably look a lot different 50 years from now than it does today. Maybe it will be a lot smaller, and maybe it won’t have the same structure, and maybe it will be more like what it was in the days after Jesus departed from his earthly form. Those first Christians were well aware of the temptations, and they named them. St Paul says it today in the second reading: “Watch carefully how you live….because the days are evil… Be filled with the Spirit, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts.”
I believe that we have lost our way because we have forgotten what the church is meant to be in the first place. Every religious institution that has ever been created has attempted to ask the questions that plague every human heart: who am I? What am I supposed to do? What is the whole universe all about? What happens to me after the life escapes from my bag of bones? Buddhists have their answers, so do Hindus and Muslims, as did our Jewish sisters and brothers.
Jesus was a Jew, of course, but he never was trained to be a priest or a religious authority. He was a carpenters son, he was a nobody, but I’m pretty sure that even as a little boy he had a hunger to know and understand who he was, and who he was meant to be. Maybe he wondered about some of the strange stories he must have heard about his birth. Even as he did all the things that boys do in their growing years--surely he did some dumb things and made his parents angry or upset---he also appeared to have an extraordinary interest in his faith, so much so that he astounded the old priests at the Temple with his precocious questions and even more astonishing theological arguments.
We don’t know much about his years afterwards, when he was undoubtedly a teenager with a crush on a girl, when he tried to learn the art of woodsplitting and bench-making, when he maybe had waaay too much wine at a wedding feast, when he discovered his body’s strength and agility and won a few contests against his friends. But we do know that he was searching for the answer to those big questions, and finally found himself in front of his crazy cousin John the Baptizer. From that moment on, he knew that his sole purpose in life was to find a way to the Source of Everything, and to get there, he understood that he had to let go of Everything that he was. Nailed to that cross, that’s how he found his way to the Source, where love lives.
Jesus never created a business plan for the Catholic Church. If anything, he tried to demonstrate to his own Jewish people that they had lost their way in such a tangle of rules and regulations that they couldn’t even find the God they so desired.
Our church has lost its way because we have forgotten that it is about being disciples of Jesus, following him to the Source of Everything, and the only way to do that is to let go of our selves in Him. He is the only way to find the peace and completeness that we have been searching for all our lives. Those priests and bishops and others who are listed in that grand jury report stopped following him, just as we do ourselves when we realize the toll that following Jesus exacts on anyone who truly is a Christian.
This church of which we are a part began on that day when the disciple whom Jesus loved the most looked into an empty cave of a tomb, saw absolutely nothing there, and believed. He believed in the unbelievable, and we too have thrown all our hope at the light that was born in the darkness there. We need to believe that when we die we will not be sentenced to the great Nothingness, but rather that we will be at peace and "draped in Light". It is a mind-blowing story into which we have woven our hearts: the Mother whose humility allowed her to be a vessel for preposterous birth, and the foster father who protected her honor and embraced her alien infant as his own; the boy who became the ANSWER to every question we have ever harbored. And the ridiculous, absurd, mind-blowing testimony that the Lord of All Universes yawned, stretched out his dead meat of a body, and raised his limbs from the slab of eternal death to live again. That's why we are here today, and it's why we get up from our own sleepy-time beds every morning with a purpose and a point to every moment that has been gifted to us.
My sisters and brothers, there is no doubt that our church is a house that needs a deep cleansing, this dwelling where depravity and wickedness has festered, where evil has been given the penthouse, where all of the seven deadly sins and their cousins have been entertained.
But it is also a house where hope lives, and hope is the greatest of mercies, isn't it. It hovers over us in these walls, it flies between us in the pews, it seeks to make a direct hit on our hearts. And lucky us, it leads us to this holy kitchen table, to the miracle that can only be seen with a Spirit's light, to sup here on our hope in him and with him forever and ever and ever and ever, world without end, amen, amen, amen.