“Let them turn to the LORD to find mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving. “ (Isaiah 55:7)
It doesn’t matter how late you came to the party. What matters is that you came to the party. So many people feel left out when they come to Church. I notice this. Pope Francis notices this. I’ll get back to the Holy Father later. In today’s gospel, Jesus tells a parable of people that are invited to work in his vineyard at different stages, yet all receive the same wage or the same blessings. Again, it doesn’t matter when in your life you encounter the living Christ as you long as you have that life altering, eternal encounter. Yet many people go through life oblivious to this man called Jesus. This past week, the priests of the Archdiocese gathered for our annual convocation with the Archbishop, and one priest was telling us of a similar experience that I preached to you about a month or so ago, that we walk down the streets with our Roman Collars on and people don’t know who we are. They look upon us with curiosity, with confusion, and don’t equate the collar with a follower or priest of Jesus Christ. Yet we try to bring people back home to the Church so that they may experience the same blessings that we enjoy, for all of us are God’s children and heirs to his kingdom.
Today we celebrate Catechetical Sunday and later on I will commission and send forth our wonderful catechists who dedicate their time to pass on the faith to our children. The theme for this year’s Catechetical Sunday is “God’s Gift of Forgiveness.” I am convinced that this is what people need to hear. They need to experience a forgiving God and this is where Pope Francis comes in as I alluded earlier. Last year, he was speaking to the Brazilian bishops and pondering on why people leave the Church or don’t come to Church at all. He compared these people to the disciples of Emmaus who left Jerusalem despondent after the death of Christ with no hope in the resurrection. They believed that Christ’s mission was a failure. And maybe people think that about the Church, Pope Francis wonders: "Perhaps the Church appeared too weak, perhaps too distant from their needs, perhaps too poor to respond to their concerns, perhaps too cold, perhaps too caught up with itself, perhaps a prisoner of its own rigid formulas." The workers that started their labor early in the morning were rigid in their thinking and could not comprehend that the owner of the vineyard would give those who started working late the same wage. We need to change our way of thinking and start thinking as God does. Like the owner of the vineyard we need to go out and encounter people where they are. This is why the Holy Father concludes: "We need a Church unafraid of going forth into their night. We need a Church capable of meeting them on their way. We need a Church capable of entering into their conversation. We need a Church able to dialogue with those disciples who, having left Jerusalem behind, are wandering aimlessly, alone, with their own disappointment, disillusioned by a Christianity now considered barren, fruitless soil, incapable of generating meaning."
But the thing is that Christianity is not barren, nor fruitless soil, nor incapable of generating meaning. All of you are here on this Sunday morning because you want to be fed. You want to experience God’s mercy and love and that is what I need to preach to all of you and what you need to share with your brothers and sisters. The thing is: how do we do it?
Last Friday, the Archbishop was here in our parish along with our mayor to consecrate the City of Hialeah to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. It was a beautiful and significant Mass for our parish and for our city. Right before the Mass started, a reporter from our Spanish Archdiocesan newspaper interviewed me and asked me, “What is your greatest challenge as pastor of Immaculate Conception?” Without missing a beat I responded, “Getting the people out there to come in here.” I went on to say that my church is surrounded by people who don’t know God. They are good, hard working people, but they live their lives, as the Archbishop said on Friday, “as if God doesn’t matter.” But God does matter and it is my mandate as pastor of this parish to communicate the love and forgiveness of God to people who don’t know Him. Again, how do we do this? Therein lies the great challenge of my pastorate. I wish I could sit on the top of our bell tower and scream to the entire city the beauty of God’s mercy. But Pope Francis is right. We need to go to where they are and like Jesus encounter them in their journey. And this is something that I have to improve on as I go into the streets and not be ashamed of engaging people when they look at me funny. Case in point:
After the Mass on Friday night, I went to dinner with some friends down the street to a Cuban restaurant. I was dressed in my clerical suit, and when I walked into the restaurant, as in my most places, I got clueless stares. They sat us right in the middle of the restaurant in a table where I was surrounded by booths and I could clearly see everyone around me. Maybe it is because I had just heard the Archbishop’s message of evangelization in Hialeah, but there came a moment where I had tuned out the conversation at my table and was looking around the room thinking: “How do I get these people into my church?” There was a part of me that wanted to go up to each booth and greet the people much like a politician does when he or she is running for office and goes into these places. Did I do it? No. Have I regretted is since Friday night? Yes. It’s very easy to preach the gospel inside these walls. It’s a lot harder to preach it out there. But that has to change. It must change. And it begins with me. I always talk about “takin’ it to the streets” but at some point processions and clerical wear and invitations to church events can only go so far. At some point, we have to talk about Jesus Christ and his mercy and love. Witness. Genuine witness, not proselytism as Pope Francis told catechists last year: “Remember what Benedict XVI said: “The Church does not grow by proselytizing; she grows by attracting others.” And what attracts is our witness. Being a catechist means witnessing to the faith, being consistent in our personal life. This is not easy! We help, we lead others to Jesus with our words and our lives, with our witness. I like to recall what Saint Francis of Assisi used to say to his friars: `Preach the Gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.’ Words come . . . but witness comes first: people should see the Gospel, read the Gospel, in our lives.”
This is our mission, which is why I’ll leave you with the same uneasiness that I have felt since Friday night: if you were in my shoes in that restaurant, what would you have done?