Priest’s stirring sermon reminds Catholics to fix their hearts on Christ amid Church scandals
August 6, 2018 (St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church) – In today's second reading, St. Paul writes: "I...urge you to live in a manner worthy of the call you have received..."
Each of us is called in Baptism to live a life of love for God and neighbor, and keeping the commandments. Even so, sadly, all of us, from time to time, fail "to live in a manner worthy of the call [we] have received."
But some of us have special callings in the Church, and for the Church. In particular, I think of priests, bishops and popes. Each of these are men have a special obligation to strive to live in a manner worthy of their very special calling, for the good of the whole Church. And when they fail, it has wider effects, and hurts the whole Church, which as St. Paul reminds us today is "one body."
Now all priests will fail in smaller ways, and even larger ways that are not uncommon among men,
ways that may disappoint us, but not cause us to give up on them. But sometimes, some priests fail miserably and in repulsive ways, ways that seem to, as Scripture says, "cry out to God for vengeance."
In the last few weeks we've heard in the news that the former Archbishop of Washington, one of the most powerful Cardinals of the Church, Theodore McCarrick, has been accused of such failures – terrible crimes and reprehensible grave sins. Although the Pope suspended him from public ministry until the investigations are concluded, McCarrick has publicly denied all accusations.
But more and more have come out. After years of hiding the stories and accusation – and evidence – the media has finally started to report what they have known for years, and lay out names, dates and documents. So that finally, McCarrick resigned from the cardinalate, and the Vatican announced he would "remain in seclusion for a life of prayer and penance until the accusations made against him are examined in a regular canonical trial."
It seems that the former-Cardinal McCarrick has tacitly admitted to grossly failing to "living in a manner worthy of the call [he has] received..."
[The way the Church operates, this is about as close to an admission of guilt that we're going to get, short a written admission. The last time a cardinal resigned was 91 years ago – it just doesn't happen. But it did.]
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All of this will have terrible effects on the life of the Church in many ways, from new priestly vocations, to our credibility in preaching the Gospel.
But of more concern to me today is the effect on you – the faithful. This kind of thing has to be terribly hard on you, even devastating to some of you.
I understand that, because it has been hard on me – for about 28 years. I hardly knew Bishop McCarrick, but since I entered the seminary, I and most of my clerical friends knew the accusations against him. There was no evidence – most of his victims were too afraid to go public, and the ones who did were ignored. So nothing could be done: you can't accuse someone publicly on hearsay. But the thing is...everybody knew.
So, many of us stood in disbelief as his personal charm and facade of kindness led him to be promoted first to archbishop, then to cardinal. And we were relieved when he retired, when Pope Benedict accepted his retirement soon after his 75th birthday. But we sickened as he became a powerful advisor to the current Pope, even years after his retirement.
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But as the Psalms tell us:
"Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation. ... Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God."
I figured out a long time ago: we don't follow bishops or priests, or cardinals, or even popes, as much as we might love them.
We follow Jesus Christ, "the God of Jacob," and we follow the Holy Catholic Church which he founded. And by "Catholic Church," again, I don't mean just the priests, bishops or Popes, who are merely men and princes. I mean the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, full of sinners and saints,
but protected by the Blessed Trinity from destruction and from passing on erroneous teaching to the generations. I mean the centuries of great and faithful saints, fathers, doctors, theologians, nuns, priests, bishops, popes and councils who have passed on what they received down the generations from the apostles, and what the apostles likewise received from Christ Himself. I mean the unfathomable treasury of beliefs, doctrines and wisdom that we sometimes call the "Deposit of Faith."
So when a priest abuses a child, it makes me want to vomit. Or when a bishop maliciously covers up that abuse, I want him thrown in jail, and the key thrown away. And when a Cardinal corrupts young men entrusted to his care, I can't even tell you what I think ought to be done to him, because I'd have to go to confession.
But in all that, it does not affect my faith. O sure, it troubles me, it depresses me. But my faith is not in men, but in God. It is not in priests and bishops, but the Church.
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Today's Gospel helps us to understand this. When he sees that the large crowd is hungry, Jesus turns to one of His Apostles and says, "Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?" In the other Gospel accounts, it says that Jesus told his apostles: "You give them something to eat." And in all accounts, including today's, the apostles respond, basically, "that's impossible: we can't feed them."
And then it says, "Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining." Again, in the other Gospel accounts, add an important clarification, telling us: "Then He gave [the loaves] to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the people."
So what we have here is that on their own, the apostles can't do anything for the people: if they had to rely on just the apostles, the people would starve. But Jesus can do everything, and so He does something wonderful. And then He uses the apostles as His instruments to bring that something wonderful to the people, He gives the apostles His gift so that they can hand it on to the people.
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And what does He give them in this text? Bread. Now bread is a very important symbol in Scripture,
a symbol that has at least 3 key meanings for Catholics. First, as the most basic kind of food common to all cultures, bread symbolizes the fundamental needs of daily life: basic food, health, shelter, clothing, etc. Second, as Jesus says elsewhere, "Man does live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God." So bread also symbolizes the Word of God which man needs to truly live, and thrive, and be happy. And finally, bread reminds us of the Eucharist – the bread of life, the continuing real presence of Jesus in his Church – the Word of God made flesh that comes to us in the form of daily bread.
Every day the Church passes on all of this to us. And even though priests and bishops are important instruments of the distribution of these treasures to His people, especially the Word and Eucharist, and grace, they, as individuals, are not the source. And even though the apostles handed all this down to us, and they are absolutely important to the life of the Church, they also, individually, are not the source. Jesus Christ is the source – he is the word of God made flesh, the source of all grace and heavenly Blessing.
And He doesn't simply entrust those gifts to individual men, but to the Church, His body with members that include not only sinful Cardinals, but also saintly men and women in all generations, from to St. Peter, to St. Augustine, to St. Raymond, to St. Catherine, to St. Therese to St. John Paul II.
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Now, all of this is not to lead you to distrust all priests and bishops. Please don't do that. Most priests try very hard to "live in a manner worthy of the call [we] have received." Many make great sacrifices for their people, and some are truly saintly. They strive to be good shepherds, to take care of their flock, even if they fail from time to time. Rejoice in their goodness, and have mercy on their failures. And love them, respect them, and support them.
But there a few that are not even trying to be shepherds, but are more like wolves in sheep's clothing, preying on their flock. Whether they teach false doctrine to tickle the ears of their people so the people will like them, [just using their flock, but leaving them to hell.] or use their office to take advantage of the vulnerable. Do not be afraid to hold those to account, always with charity and mercy, but also always with true justice.
And do not be discouraged by them. Our hope is in Christ, not in them. And Christ is our hope, not our despair. Discouragement comes from our own weaknesses, or from the devil himself. The devil is loving the current scandal: he wants you to be discouraged; he wants you to despair; he wants you to give up.
But do NOT give up. Remember simply two words: Jesus Christ!
And remember that Jesus gives us a great and glorious gift to strengthen us. He gives us Himself. We don't come to Mass every Sunday just to see each other, or to see or listen to the priest, or to hope that some prince of the Church drops in. We come to hear Him, the Word of God, speak to us in the readings, and hopefully through the homily, and to receive Him, the Word made flesh in the bread of life – the Eucharist.
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So now, fix your hearts and minds on Christ. You have heard His word, now prepare for Him to come to us in the flesh and to receive Him in Holy Communion. Prepare to receive the peace that can only come from Holy Communion, the peace of Christ that overcomes all distress. And do not be discouraged by the failures of men, but accept the grace to believe, hope and love in Christ and His Church. And pray that all of us, priest and laity, by the grace of this Most Blessed Sacrament, may always strive to "live in a manner worthy of the call you have received."
Published with permission from St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church.
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