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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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The Wonderment of God & the Greatness of the Church

I sometimes worry that we overly politicize the Church.  Certainly, we must take positions on certain questions that reflect Gospel mandates, the natural law in morality and the Social Gospel.  This in itself will anger those on the right and left who immediately identify themselves with a political party.  Instead of trying to conform our world to the values of faith, such people try to force the dynamic blocks of Christian faith into the restrictive parameters of the faddish popular forum, much like forcing wooden stars and triangles into the round hole of a cognitive puzzle.  Much of the anger and frustration comes from trying to make something fit that just does not belong. 

Those on the right might validly stress the preeminent value of the sanctity of life against abortion.  This is as it should be, but such should not be dismissive of the other pressing issues of the day.  Indeed, they should work harder to demonstrate how other threats to life and dignity begin with it as the nucleus.  Those on the left would correctly remind us that there are other issues besides abortion; but, often with a disconnect that allows it to be wrongly eclipsed by a host of other matters.  There are topics on the table dear to the two reigning parties and reflective of a modernity that do not square well with the kerygma we have inherited.  The bishops would implore us to take up the pressing moral and social challenges of the day— but to do so without taking partisan sides. This often leaves clergy bewildered with impotent preaching because it is never explained how this might be done at a time when the two main parties are stringently polarized behind certain issues.  Mention the topic of pro-life or anti-abortion and many immediately tag you as a Republican.  Use the label of pro-choice or reproductive rights and you are quickly assessed as a Democrat.  What are the other concerns?  Republicans like to think of themselves as supporters of states’ rights over federal intrusion, of increased funding for police, of traditional marriage restricted to a man and woman, of capital punishment for the most dangerous criminals, of a strong military, of the right to bear arms, of walls and secure borders, of low taxes, of incentives for business and job development, etc.  Democrats are known for the expansion of federal government, for a preference of funding for domestic programs over military hardware, for defunding the police, for gun-control, for welcoming immigrants (illegal ones), for an end to the federal death penalty, for wider access to welfare and food stamps, for the rights of workers and unions, for women’s rights (including abortion) and now for LGBTQ rights.  While there is little room for dialogue on abortion given that many politicians (even Catholic ones) have voted against the Born-Alive bill, there is a growing hesitance for the two parties to discuss almost anything today in good faith.  Religion is increasing invoked for positions taken although more on the right than the left.  Indeed, it seems that many bishops increasingly fear the secularism from the Democratic Party as a threat to religious liberty. The Church, both her leadership and her members, have become drawn into the debates.  A number of these matters accent what might be called the pelvic issues:  marriage and same sex unions, the nature of gender and abortion. When the matter is the sanctity of human life and the dignity of persons, many would call into question the veracity of one’s claim to be a Christian believer.  Many of us feel that there is no such creature as a pro-abortion Catholic.  The USCCB desperately wants to avoid a political litmus test.  However, there is a conundrum.  Are there some matters (as with abortion) that would not make the reception of Holy Communion a sacrilege before God and a scandal before the faith community? 

Borrowing a theme from Trump, (a name that makes some bow the head and others spit), many are saying that we need to MAKE THE CHURCH GREAT AGAIN.  But, what they are really saying is that they want a “great” purge.  While the reception of the Eucharist gives the impression of normalization, we need to emphasize that God knows our hearts and minds.  He is the one to render ultimate judgment. We can ask that certain people refrain from taking Holy Communion; but we also have to renew the invitation for any and all to come to Mass.  While we have emphasized the Mass as a spiritual meal, we must also remember that it is an opportunity to offer ourselves at the oblation of Calvary.  It is this sacrifice that can transform hearts and minds.  Over time it may help dispose us so that we can be fed and not poisoned by the food for the journey.  The Eucharist is food and medicine to many; but to those who are not in right relationship with the Lord, it would be like a person allergic to shell fish having it for a meal.  It will make you sick or bring down judgment. Remember, the one sin that most arouses the ire of Christ is hypocrisy.

The Church was “great” even when it was reduced to eleven fearful apostles and a few crying women.  Again, the Church is great because Christ is great— he is almighty God in human flesh— God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, and all-good.  He is great because he freely willed to come down from heaven to earth so that we might be able to go from earth to heaven.

The greatness that we should pursue is how we might allow the awesome wonder and glory of Christ to shine out to the world through us— in other words, how we might become that light in the darkness, shining for all to see.  The expansion of the Church was certainly part of the apostolic mission given the commission of Christ to go out to the entire world and to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  I suspect that they were aware of the “greatness” of the Church even when it was an embryo of what it would later become.  The proclamation of the kingdom of God was readily identified firstly with the person of Christ and later with the Church as his mystical body.  The fire or drive of St. Paul was most definitely an ambition to expand the saving dispensation among the Gentiles.  Later, at the council of Jerusalem, one imagines that the Jewish-Christian leadership were markedly surprised if not aghast at the growth of the Gospel and the establishment of churches in the Greek and Roman pagan world.  They were aware that theirs was the Church of a saving covenant that fulfilled the one covenant established by God with the Jews.  The many martyrs for the faith would intensify a sense of the Church as a unique entity, made stronger and larger by those who mingled their blood with that of Christ.  Given time the great empire of Rome would succumb and be transformed by the Christian faith.  The legacy of those who would receive the keys from Peter would be that the bishops of Rome wielded universal jurisdiction in the Church as a charism from Christ.  Their pedigree, so to speak, would be built upon the twin pillars of Peter and Paul.  The Lord is honored by the fidelity of his disciples and the growth of the Church.  The efficacy of the Church’s claim as HOLY is that she has endured the ages and consistently witnessed to the truth, compassion and mercy of Christ, even while drawing sinners to her.  The story of Christ and the tales of the saints is the real and saving history of this glorious Church.  We have wanted as her sons and daughters to give resound to the greatness and glories of the Catholic Church.  She is the great mother from which we received spiritual adoption and new birth in the womb of the baptismal font. 

It is true that everything is gift.  But we should not short-change our participation in the work of Christ.  There is greatness in our taking up our crosses and following the Lord.  Indeed, imitating the model of Mary, there is greatness in humility and in being so disposed to grace that we become servants and handmaids of God.  When we read the stories of saints who laid down their lives for others, we are touched by this greatness.  Watch the end to the movie, THE MISSION— when the priest is leading the tribesmen in Eucharistic procession, courageously facing in solidarity with their priest the bullets of the soldiers— we are moved to awe.  It is a fiction but made real in so many stories of clergy and their flocks witnessing their faith with bravery.  We need that courage today.  One of my favorite saints is Father Damien.  When he cries out, “We Lepers!” at a Mass on Molokai Island— there is a light blazing, greatness that a selfish world still struggles to understand. 

We have nothing of our own.  We are all the poor man.  But there is greatness in appreciating the gift— in acknowledging what is already there.  The greatness of our heroes of faith and thus of the Church is one with the “Greatest Story Ever Told.” 

Many speak of a wonderment that approaches reverence when they look into a clear night sky filled with stars.  Just imagine, the God who made all this also made you.  But would it be the same if there were no one to look up and see?  Yes, it could exist, but where would be the wonder? I am reminded of the proverbial tree falling in the woods— does it make any noise if there is no one to hear it?  What God creates, he perfectly knows and sustains in being or existence.  If greatness is measured in terms of awe then it weighs heavily on the side of creation.  It is an opening to a big surprise or a vast mystery.  It is to encounter something incalculable, drawing us beyond ourselves.  Given evolution as part of God’s plan, there is a rendezvous in our journey to the truth of our dependence, becoming aware that in the hierarchy of being this distance between us and the absolute is greater than between an ant and a man. Called to be children, our first parents fell and sought to join the bestial.  And yet, on the level of grace there is an intersection of the finite with the infinite.  A promise is fulfilled with the incarnation. Every time we cry out Hosanna or Glory to God, we are giving voice to a greatness that demands and deserves acknowledgment. The angelic choir of heaven hears the distant echo of earthly voices taking up their celestial hymn. 

We cannot save ourselves.  We are instruments of God but we have no dominion over divine providence. Not even the Pope is the master of the Gospel, just the chief of its stewards.  The kingdom will come entirely when God intends it to be fulfilled.  This makes the Church not just a human institution but also a divine one.  The greatness of the Church rests with the greatness or awesome wonder that belongs to Christ.  When we speak of regeneration by faith in the waters of baptism, we are literally talking about the seeds of greatness planted by our Lord.  A fallen human nature is not immediately repaired from all the consequences of sin but it is redeemed, advanced and given a higher dignity by sanctifying grace. We are more than we were before.  A number of the spiritual masters and Church fathers speak of it as a divinization of our humanity.  We are made members of the kingdom of God, adopted sons and daughters of the Father and heirs to eternal life.  If we can speak of any greatness in the Church, its source is found in Christ and it permeates the entire mystical body, all those members who live and serve in right relationship with God.

Divine worship and the Lord’s Supper aid us in the truth about our standing before God; however, we can be convicted as well if we come ill-disposed.  (Here I think about the parable when the guest was thrown out for not wearing the proper wedding garment.)  We can grow in love and humility, as long as contrite hearts make possible the forgiveness of sins. Our worship is rendered in communion with Christ who is priest and victim.  Our Lord is the one priest who sacrifices his life on Calvary to make perfect satisfaction for the sin that dishonored the Almighty.  This oblation of propitiation or redemption is re-presented in a clean or unbloody manner every time we assemble to celebrate the Mass.  This is our greatest worship as Christians and because of this profound sacramental unity with a man who is also a divine person, it pleases the Father.  A vast breach is traversed.  We join in the banquet of heaven.  The Lord becomes our “pontifex” or bridge from this veil of tears to the other side.  The Eucharist is given to us as the rations for our pilgrimage across the sea of life to the promised shore.  

Is nothing added in our worship?  I would suggest that the one thing is added at Mass that was missing two thousand years ago.  Our Lord commanded that the Lord’s Supper be performed in “remembrance of me.”  While we all stand convicted by the Cross, as the accumulative sins of all mankind throughout all human history put Jesus to death, the Mass allows us to move from the foot of the cross to the other side of that dead tree where we might be crucified with him.  The Mass allows us to intentionally offer ourselves joined with Christ to the heavenly Father.  Something of this is symbolized in the offertory gifts.  Just as we offer bread and wine that might be transformed into the body and blood of Christ; the worshipper should also be consciously praying that he or she might also be transformed into a new Christ.  We pray that the Father will see his Son in us and give us a share in his reward.  There is greatness in this movement of grace.  We are made in the in the image of God; but the mercy of Jesus transforms us into his likeness in grace.  We are made righteous or justified.  We are made brand new.

One Response

  1. Amen. Keep it coming.

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