Sunday, September 27, 2015

School of Encounter: Rejecting the Culture of Exclusivity in the Church

“Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!” (Numbers 11:29)

This morning when I walked out of the house, I noticed a flyer at my front gate.  It was for a Night of Healing and Worship at the Milander auditorium next door.  My first reaction was frustration because there is a Protestant healing service right at our doorstep, but then I remembered today’s readings and the homily I was going to preach.  The flyer said, “Jesus saves.”  I believe in that.  It also said “Jesus heals.” I believe in that too.  So essentially like in the gospel, two very well intentioned Christians who are not Catholic are going to do worship the Lord and heal in his name.  If I should be angry with anyone, it’s shouldn’t be directed at them; it’s at myself for not having thought of it first.  All of us, whether we are Catholic or Protestant, share the same baptism, and are baptized into Christ’s ministry of priest, prophet and king.  When Joshua complained to Moses that two outsiders were prophesying in the camp, Moses responded: “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets!”  And we are!  We are called to speak the truth of Jesus Christ, to share His Good News.  Unfortunately, like in the gospel and like the disciples, we get jealous when another group, even inside our parishes gets more “glory” than we do when really all the glory should be given to our Lord and Savior.  I know this may sound harsh, but at times we often look down on others who are not in our particular group or a particular ministry as if one group holds the absolute keys to salvation.  Are we not one family as our Holy Father reminded us this week?

These past 9 days in which Pope Francis has been in Cuba and the United States have been days of incredible blessing and remarkable teaching from our Holy Father.  In his homily in New York on Friday night, he said that Christ “brings us to the school of encounter. He removes us from the fray of competition and self-absorption…”  We should not be competing against ourselves when we all have the same goal as a parish: to bring people to Christ.  Which is why, as Catholics, we do not have the luxury to compete with other ministries, and when it comes to our attitudes on Sundays, we definitely do not have the luxury to be “self-absorbed” and look down on the visitor who walks through our church doors.  This sacred space must be a place of encounter, not only for people to encounter Christ, but also of the people of Christ to encounter each other.  Oh, that blessed day last month when I roped off the back two sections of our church to encourage people to sit closer to the altar and closer to each other.  It breaks my heart as your pastor to see you come to worship the Lord and sit far from each other like strangers taking in a movie instead of gathering together as ONE Body of Christ to celebrate the Eucharist as a family.  I am embarrassed in our smaller Masses when the lector at the beginning of the liturgy invites people to greet each other and I see people giving a half-hearted wave to people who are maybe 50 feet away from them.  Goodness, there are a million people packed together like sardines in a can in Philadelphia right now for a Mass with the Pope that won’t start for another four and half hours, and they couldn’t be happier.  We do not come to Mass by ourselves, nor is it a private act, we come to Mass a family: the Immaculate Family that has been going strong for 61 blessed years.   We must rejoice when we see our neighbor at Mass not shy away from them.

So yes, I put up the ropes to rock the boat a little bit, to force us to encounter Christ and to force us to encounter each other in the Eucharist.  But then I discover that apparently we have parishioners who “own” pews in this parish and look down on fellow parishioners who dare to sit in their pews during Mass.  Sadly, I am not making this up.  I wish I was.  This attitude needs to stop.  If you are so tied to your seat in church that you will tell someone to move (and again, this has happened), I implore you, please take my seat on the sanctuary.  I’ll sit on the floor.  We do not have the luxury to be inhospitable to our visitors and our neighbors.  If someone is sitting in your seat: smile, welcome them, and pick one of the other 999 spaces that we have here in our beautiful church…even if it’s mine!  This culture of exclusivity needs to stop because we are turning people away from our beautiful parish that has so much to offer.  We offer Christ himself and when visitors come to Immaculate, they must encounter a people filled with the joy of Jesus Christ, a school of encounter, where they feel welcomed and not looked down upon.  This must be a place of warmth, of welcome, of a community gathering around the one altar of sacrifice.

Why am I so adamant about this?  Because as your pastor, the Archbishop entrusted me with the care of your souls.  I am entrusted with your salvation.  It is not something that I take lightly, and when the ship needs to be righted, I am the one who has to steer it away from the storm and into calm waters.  Immaculate must and will become a place of encounter and hospitality.  The old way is over.  We are beginning anew. And just like the Holy Father did yesterday morning in Philadelphia to empower the laity to do good works, I am empowering all of you to be God’s instruments of encounter to those we meet in this sacred space.

I want to finish with two quick stories:  Three weeks ago, a blind young man I met not long ago was brought to Mass by a mutual friend.  I knew he was coming, and I knew that he was bringing his guide dog that is as quiet as a mouse.  I did not know what Mass he was coming to and to be brutally honest, I was terrified how a blind young man with a guide dog would be received.  He walked in with our friend, sat in the first pew directly in front of me, and his dog lay quietly on the floor during the entire Mass.  What brought great joy to my heart was after Mass when an usher approached him when he was leaving and told him: “It was really wonderful to have you here.  Please come back again.”  The young man would tell me later that he had never felt more welcomed.

The second story happened early this morning.  A couple was standing outside the church doors.  They asked to speak to me and they asked me a question that I have never been asked as a priest:  “Can we go into church?”  I was taken aback by that question.  They went on to explain that were recently arrived immigrant and they had been to other churches, including some santero churches, and some of them had these supposed rites of welcome that one had to undergo before going in.  I smiled and said to them, “Of course you can go in!  Forget where you’ve been or what you’ve done, Jesus is waiting for you inside.”  I have never been asked permission by someone to go into church.  I felt like a father who opens the doors to his house with his children behind him and a child asks: “can we go in?”  It is our home!  This is YOUR home!  Of course you can come!  All are welcomed!  All are invited!  Immaculate must be a place of encounter.  This is not an exclusive club.  This is not a place where we look down on anyone.  This is a Catholic church!  It is universal!  Christ is our head, and we are his body.  May we accept our Holy Father’s invitation and truly transform this beautiful parish into a genuine “school of encounter.”

(Postscript: One of my deacons went to Cuba to see the Pope and gave a reflection at the midday Mass two hours after I preached this homily.  The first words he uttered were: “the Pope is calling us to be a people of encounter!”  Enough said….)

Sunday, September 6, 2015

The Voice We Don't Want To Hear

“[Jesus] looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to [the deaf man], “Ephphatha!” (that is, “Be opened!”).” (Mark 7:34)

There’s a wonderful picture that was taken last year in our school that shows me sitting with our preschoolers during a school assembly.  Some of the older kids were singing and making or something and the preschoolers started putting their hands over their ears.  I went and I sat with them on the floor and started doing the same thing.  

When little kids are annoyed with noise, they just simply put their hands over their ears.  For kids, it’s cute.  For adults, it might be considered rude.  Yet this is how we sometimes act when God is trying to speak to us.   We place our hands over our ears like a little child.  We don’t want to listen, we are unwilling to listen, and we don’t want to hear what he has to say because it can change our lives.  The deaf man in today’s gospel didn’t have that option.  He just simply couldn’t hear.  Yet Jesus heals him, as he wants to heal us of our deafness and our speech impediments.  We don’t listen to the Word of God.  We don’t listen to his voice because it is drowned out by all the other voices in the world.  Notice that Jesus takes the deaf man apart from the crowd to heal him.  He needs to do the same with us.  We need to go to a place of silence to listen. 

But how does God speak to us?  How will we recognize his voice?  Well, he’s been speaking to you from the moment you walked into this church.  He’s been speaking to you in a very special way when the Scripture readings were being proclaimed.  And he is speaking to you now through a very unworthy servant.  Are we listening?  God speaks to us through Sacred Scripture, plain and simple.  It is God’s Divine Word.  The priest breaks open this Word for us during the homily.  Yet the reason this Word sometimes falls on deaf ears is because we are not familiar with this Word.  As Catholics, and I’ve said this before, we fall way behind our Protestant brothers and sisters when it comes to our knowledge of the Bible.  We hear three readings from the Bible every Sunday.  God is speaking to us in a very concrete way.  So much treasure.  So much wisdom.  Are we listening? Do we know what to listen for?  I know I’ve been asking a lot of questions but it all boils down to this one:  How often do you read your Bible?  Let’s not kid ourselves. Many of us know more about the lives of the Kardashians and other celebrities than we do about the heroes of the Bible and the lives of the saints.  We need to open the Good Book and read some Good News.  But again, do we want to hear it?

This past Friday, I celebrated the evening daily Mass in our chapel that is more often than not filled with good folks who do not practice their faith, yet come to Mass because it is being offered for a deceased relative.  They are there, God bless them, out of a sense of obligation to their loved ones.  On this particular day, we had a big group that had no idea what was going on in the Mass.  We have a very small chapel, so I can tell the type of Catholic who is sitting in the pews fairly quickly.  During the homily, I preached on the first reading that was taken from the first chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians.  It is a beautiful reading with great history and tradition. It is an ancient Christian hymn, and I proceeded to explain the reading and hopefully connect with some of our visitors.  Now the worse thing someone can do during one of my homilies is ignore me.  I know it sounds vain, but I am up there preaching the Word of God and pouring my heart out unto that pulpit so that everyone can connect to the Word.  Yet there was a lady ignoring me.  This caused me to get more animated in my preaching.  There were two gentlemen in the back talking.  This caused me to get louder in my preaching.  So when I saw that I was getting a bit too long for a daily Mass homily, I wrapped things up by saying, “You know what, go home, open your Bibles, dust them off and read Colossians 1 and meditate on it.”  People laughed at the dusting off part, but I was not being judgmental, I was also pointing the finger at me.  Because of the advent of the iPad, I usually read the Bible, say my daily prayers, and prepare my homilies off an electronic device. My Bible is sitting on my bookshelf, you guessed it, collecting dust.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  There’s nothing wrong with reading the Word of God from iPads or computers, but sometimes we need to have the actual Book in our hands.  Something that probably was blessed.  Something that is holy.  Something the Lord uses to speak to us. 

We need to start reading the Word of God so that we can hear the voice of God so that we can share this Good News.  If we’re deaf to the Word of God, if we don’t read our Bibles, then we can’t very well speak about it.  Ephphatha! One last thing I would like to point out: towards the end of today’s gospel, when the people saw what Jesus had done with the deaf man, they said about Jesus: “He has done all things well.”  This is a callback to the creation story in the Book of Genesis.  Jesus is recreating the world and doing it well, just like the Father back in the beginning of the Bible when at the end of every day of creation he would look at what he had created and saw that it was “good.”  Jesus wants to take you apart from the noise of the crowd like he did with the deaf man and open your ears and lead you to a place where you can hear Him more clearly.  This way armed with God’s Word, you can go forth to the world and do “all things well.”