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….)