Deacon Christopher C. Roberts, Holy Martyrs parish
2/17/19, 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time - year C
Jeremiah 17:5-8; Ps. 40:5a and 1:1-4, 6; 1 Cor. 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26
The top story of the front page of today’s Inquirer indicates that yesterday, Pope Francis laicized – defrocked - Theodore McCarrick – who was once the Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, DC. Mr. McCarrick betrayed our faith, and can no longer function as a priest – he’s not called Father, he can’t wear a collar, and he can’t say Mass, even in private. Any civil lawsuits that he might be facing, he faces on his own.
These steps for Mr. McCarrick are not enough, but they are a start. Justice is coming, one way or another, for the rest of McCarrick’s mafia.
As the Inquirer also says this morning, the number of reporters camped outside the Vatican this week is on the scale of a papal conclave. We may hear a lot about Rome in the next two weeks, because starting Thursday, the pope hosts a conference with 100 bishops from around the world to talk about abuse in the Church.
Personally, my expectations are low. I think renewal in the Church is coming, but it will take more than conferences. I want to tell you today where I think real reform is going to come from. I want to tell you three reasons why I’m proud and grateful to be a Catholic, no matter what happens or doesn’t happens with the bishops.
First, last Monday, we took the Martin Saints students to a lecture downtown. We listened to Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit who is the director of the Vatican Astronomical Observatory. Brother Guy regaled us with stories of looking for meteorites in Antarctica, of studying things I don’t understand called “jellyfish galaxies” and “quantum gravity.” It was marvelous. That’s the Vatican on a good day.
I wanted our students to meet him, and absorb the point that our Church has astronomers, that it’s officially part of the Catholic mission to marvel at the stars. I wanted our students to know that the Catholic faith is smart, that religion and science go together, that we should ask questions and let our imaginations soar. Brother Guy said science is a type of worship, giving careful attention to the glorious things our Creator has made. That makes me proud to be Catholic and glad to be alive. This side of Catholicism – the smart side, the full of wonder and praise side – this side of Catholicism is deeper and more real than the McCarrick side.
My second story starts with todays’ gospel, where Jesus says blessed are the poor…and woe to the rich. Blessed are the hungry….and woe to those who are full. Blessed are those who are weeping…and woe to those who are laughing. Blessed are those who are excluded and insulted…and woe to those with the fancy reputations.
All of today’s readings are a gut check, a challenge to our consciences. Nevermind McCarrick and somebody else’s sins – the question in this Gospel is whether we believe, with Jesus, that despite all outward appearances, do we believe that the poor, unpopular, and vulnerable are truly blessed.
Let me share with you one reason I believe that. Two days ago, on Friday, the Martin Saints students took another field trip, this time to a homeless shelter in Kensington. We had Mass in a small dark room just under the El train, a beautiful mixed congregation of students and street people. Then we made dozens, maybe a few hundred, sandwiches. Then we broke into small groups and for a couple hours, each group carried a big cross up a different section of Kensington Avenue. Almost every person we met was visibly poor, addicted, or homeless.
We’d walk up and say to them “hello, how you are you doing today? Would you like a sandwich? What’s your name? How can we pray for you?” Next, we would take their name or prayer request, write it on a small post-it note, and nail those little notes to the cross. Then, after a couple hours, we took the crosses back to the shelter. By that point, our crosses were covered in dozens and dozens of colored post-its, and we said the rosary for all those names and their intentions.
I admit that, earlier in week, when I knew Friday’s trip was coming, I felt a little afraid. But once Friday came and we were actually doing it, the fear melted away. 98% of the people we met on the street were glad to see us, with a gentle word or a heartfelt prayer request.
It was a wonderful day. A priest friend who led our group has done similar prayer walks in suburban malls and center city. He says that the more affluent neighborhoods are reliably more hostile than the people in Kensington. Generally speaking – and of course exceptions exist – but generally speaking, the further you climb on the economic ladder, the more people tend to close up spiritually.
So when the people of Kensington welcomed prayers and friendship, I was thinking about today’s Gospel. Is this what Jesus meant when he said the poor are blessed, that they are the ones who actually have time for him? This is our Catholic faith. There are at least a dozen or so priests, friars, and nuns down there in Kensington every day, representing our Church with the poor and the addicted. They need our support and prayers. Think of these priest and nuns, and how we can encourage our children to follow that path, when we pray for vocations and the future of the Church. To heck with McCarrick. He is not the future.
Let me get to my third and final story about why I’m glad to be Catholic and where renewal is coming from. In today’s Old Testament reading, Jeremiah says that the one who trusts in human nature is like a barren plant in a desert, or in a lava waste, or in a salted and empty field.
Jeremiah lived during the Babylonian Exile, when Jerusalem lay in ruins, when famine threatened, when violence was strong and the rule of law was weak. Just like our Church today, ancient Israel knew what it was like to be the people of God during lean times.
Jeremiah says that when we trust in the way of the flesh – meaning of course lust and consuming appetites of all kinds, but also that way of life which is bitter, closed-in on itself, refusing to hope or change, sleep-walking through life - Jeremiah is saying this way of spending a life is like planting ourselves in a salted, empty field. Nothing good can grow there. No renewal comes from those roots.
But, says Jeremiah, the one who hopes and trusts in the Lord is like a tree beside the waters, with deep roots into the living stream, unafraid of drought, always green and bearing fruit, even when the heat comes.
Friends, my third and final reason for being glad to be Catholic and hoping in renewal is that Lent is coming in just over two weeks. Lent is a great gift to us, from the Church, to help us assess our spiritual roots. Have we put our trust and grown our roots into bitterness, into a self-centered way of life, into the salted field? Or are we with the Lord, the tree rooted beside the stream?
McCarrick, the bishops, the media, the politicians, Amazon, Netflix, technological devices – none of those things can take away our Lent unless we let them distract us. It’s the Catholic Church that gave us Lent, and for centuries and generations past and to come, how we spend our Lent is up to each of us. We don’t need to ask the bishop’s conference for permission to have a good Lent!
Let’s take the next two weeks to get ready, to think about what we need to prune away, or what acts of generosity we might need to perform, so that we can get unstuck from our sin. The water is Jesus. Practicing prayer and acts of mercy are the way to grow roots. This altar is the river. This is the place where renewal of our lives and of our Church can begin.