Wednesday, April 27, 2016

THE SCANDAL OF THE CHURCH'S PARTICULARITY


Homily for May 1st, 2016.
Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year C.  Revelation 21:10-14, 22-23.
AIM: To show the Church=s spiritual beauty and power, hidden beneath surface shabbiness and weakness.
 
Shortly after he became Pope in November 1958 John XXIII was asked: AHow many people are working in the Vatican now?@ With the humor that made him beloved all over the world, the Holy Father replied: AAbout half.@  
AAbout half@ is a more than generous estimate of the number of baptized Catholics who will attend Mass today. All of us know one of more of these inactive Catholics. If there is someone in your family who seems to feel no need to practice the faith, don=t argue, and certainly don=t nag. Show that loved one a little of the patience the Lord has shown you in your own life. The decision to forego churchgoing is never final as long as life continues. The example of our lives will always have greater converting power than any words we can speak.
Many inactive Catholics say they continue to worship God B just not in the Catholic Church. Some are Anature worshipers.@ They say they feel closer to God on the golf course, or on a drive or walk through the country, than at Mass. Others have joined the Electronic Church. They watch one of the television preachers B almost all of them fundamentalist Protestants. Estimates of the Catholics in their large audience range up to 30% of the total. Finally, there are the Catholics who still go to church, but not to a Catholic church, and thus not to Mass. All of these Catholics who are no longer with us share one thing in common: dissatisfaction with Mass in their own Church. They find our ordinary Sunday worship cold, impersonal, boring, and irrelevant to their needs.   
How different the picture in our second reading today. Like the second reading last Sunday, it is part of the author=s vision of the worship of God in heaven.  Describing the heavenly church, he says: AIt gleamed with the splendor of God. Its radiance was like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.@ If we were to try to persuade the huge number of inactive Catholics that our Sunday worship was anything like that, they=d think we=d lost our marbles. They find the Church and its worship not radiant like a precious stone, but shabby. At bottom it is this shabbiness, in one form or another, which has caused them to drop out. What has turned them off is something called the scandal of the Church=s particularity.
That is a long name for something very simple. The Church=s particularity means our belief that God is present in particular ways, in particular places, at particular times. Catholics believe, for instance, that when, with a priest, we obey Jesus= parting command to Ado this in my memory,@ the bread and wine on the altar are no longer ordinary bread and wine but truly the body and blood of our risen and glorified Lord. At that particular time, and in that particular place, God is present in a special way. 
That is a tremendous claim. It upsets a lot of people. Especially upset are the nature worshipers. God is everywhere, they say. That=s true. God is everywhere. Since we are not angels, however, but bodily creatures of time and space, we are unlikely to experience God=s presence everywhere unless we experience him somewhere in particular. Hence God gives us certain times and places where he is present with a special intensity: in the Eucharist, for instance, or in a building set apart for worship. God=s presence in such particular places does not diminish his presence elsewhere, however, any more than the sun=s light is diminished when we use a magnifying glass to focus sunlight onto a leaf or piece of paper until it burns. 
It is not only the Church=s particularity which turns many people off, but also its shabbiness. And let=s face it: often the Church is shabby. The Mass may be badly celebrated and the sermon unprepared, rambling, and boring. The people round us are often strangers, some of them perhaps not Aour kind.@  
No wonder that many people find the Electronic Church, or Protestant worship, more attractive. On TV the preacher is always well prepared; the singing is lively and on key; the congregation is squeaky clean. Moreover, much Protestant worship has a genuine warmth and fervor too often lacking in our Catholic parishes. Some years ago an ecumenical service with Lutherans drew a large congregation which filled our enormous Cathedral on Lindell. You could tell it was Protestant because of the volume of singing. You could tell it was Catholic because there was a baby crying. That says it all. Face it: often what goes on in Catholic churches is unattractive, cold, irrelevant B in a word, shabby.
 Yet it is precisely amid this shabbiness that we encounter God. He seems to like shabby surroundings. When God came to us in human form, he chose to be born not in the glamour and sophistication of Athens or Rome, but in a backward village on the fringe of the civilized world. The stable and manger at Bethlehem were not romantic like our Christmas cribs. They were smelly and dirty. Today Mary would shelter her son not in a stable but in a garage.  
The Catholic Church calls itself Athe one true Church@ B another example of that particularity which offends people. In claiming to be the one true Church we are not saying that other churches are false. The Catechism says: AThe sole Church of Christ ... subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside its visible confines@ (No. 870). The phrase Aone true Church@ means simply that the Catholic Church is, in the fullest sense, the representative today of the body founded by Jesus Christ. In the poetic imagery of our second reading, it means that beneath the Church=s outward shabbiness there is Aradiance like that of a precious stone, like jasper, clear as crystal.@
The Catechism says that this radiance is visible, however, Aonly [through] faith@ (No. 812). It is not the worldly radiance of wealth, impressive church buildings, or power. Today those outward trappings are being taken from us. The Church=s true radiance is inward and spiritual. We have the precious jewels of Holy Scripture, of the sacraments, of the heroisms large and small of innumerable Christians of all ages and both sexes B some of them here in our own parish. Most of these people are known only to God.

Between the Church on earth and the heavenly church described in our second reading there is, however, an important difference. The author of that reading says: AI saw no temple in the city.@ Of course not! There will be no church buildings in heaven, no sacraments, no priests. None of these will be necessary, for in heaven we shall see God face to face. 

Here and now, however, we do need these particular times and places where God has promised to be with us in special ways. People who claim to worship God everywhere in general but nowhere in particular are starry-eyed romantics, acting as if they were already in heaven while they are still on earth. The same is true of people who look for a Apure@ church with no shabbiness. A pure church would be wonderful, wouldn=t it? Can we be confident, however, that a really pure church would have room for sinners as shabby as ourselves?

For those with eyes to see and ears to hear; for those humble enough to accept God=s ways instead of insisting on their own; for people willing to respond to the Lord=s invitation instead of pursuing their own romantic dreams B for all such people here is all the power of God and all his love. Here is all the radiance of his glory. Here, as we Ado this@ at Jesus= command and in his memory, is medicine for sick sinners: nourishing, strengthening food for us, God=s weary and often shabby pilgrims, as we trudge onward to that heavenly city which is our true and eternal home: the heavenly Jerusalem described in our second reading with no darkness and Ano need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.@