Sunday, August 26, 2018

Lord, to whom shall we go?


There was a story in the New York Times this week that really caught my attention. It was from a parish in Atlanta, Georgia, where the local priest there preached last weekend about the priest abuse scandal that has once again taken center stage. The priest there said, of course, the scandal was terrible and that the church had to change. Just as he was moving on from that topic, a man in the congregation stood up and said loudly, “Hey, Father! How?” The priest did not have much of an answer for the distraught man except to suggest that he write to his Bishop and the Pope and share his concerns.

When I read that story, I had two reactions to it. As you know, I too preached about the crisis and, calling upon the image of St. Francis, about our need to rebuild the church together. So, my first reaction was, “Oh, thank goodness that no one stood up and shouted here!” Both because it would be shocking to have someone in the congregation do that, but also because if they did, I’m not sure that I would have had an answer that was much better than the priest in Atlanta. My second reaction, though, when I stopped thinking about myself and how I would have felt on the spot, was to think, wow, how courageous of that man. He had the courage to stand up in front of his whole parish, to take ownership of his faith and call for change.

He wrote about that moment later in the week. He said, “I wouldn’t exist without Catholicism. It was the church’s own teachings that made me stand up on Sunday. Catholics are taught that it’s imperative to help others. We are told to protect the innocent. Aside from my own family, two institutions helped form my character: the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts. Both encouraged me to stand up for what is right and to use our strength for those in need.” That story really struck me deeply and I have not been able to shake it. What would I say if someone challenged me that way? And, as I was reflecting on that question, I received an email from a parishioner. I’ll share a little bit of it with you, but not enough to give away who it came from. They wrote, “This is being sent to inform you of our decision to take a sabbatical from Saint Margaret’s and the Catholic Church. This has not been an easy decision in that both of us have been raised Catholics and have been parishioners for all our 56 years of marriage. But the on-going scandals and Rome's continued inaction has us doubting our continued attendance and financial support, so until or unless Pope Francis shows some sincere interest in response to this matter, we'll simply say goodbye for now. Our decision has nothing to do with Saint Margaret's and we wish you and all the parish the very best.”

I’ve been thinking and praying about how to respond to these members of our parish, and how I would respond if someone stood up in the middle of Mass. Here’s what I thought I might say but decided I’d like to run it by all of you first.

Dear parishioners, Since receiving your email I have been thinking and praying about how I should respond. First let me thank you and commend you for the courage to write to me this week. You could have simply vanished from the pews and we would never have known why. Please know that I hear your anger and frustration, and I share it. I, too, cannot believe that the church has not fully addressed these issues, especially in the 16 years since the scandal first came to broad attention. There simply is no excuse for that inaction. Change must happen.

You may have seen that Pope Francis issued a letter to the whole church this week, one that I hope you had the chance to read. In it he quite bluntly acknowledged the abuse of power by some members of the clergy, named our closeness to those who have been harmed, and pledged to take final and decisive action to get this right. It will be our job – all of us in the church – to make sure he and our bishops follows through on those words.

But, he also wrote, “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people…The only way that we have to respond to this evil that is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God. Without the active participation of all the Church’s members, everything being done to uproot the culture of abuse in our communities will not be successful in generating the necessary dynamics for sound and realistic change.”

In other words, the Pope is saying, and I’m saying to you: We need you. The Church – even in its brokenness - needs you. We need you to stand by our side, to cry with us when we cry, to laugh with us when we laugh. We need you to pray with us and for us shoulder-to-shoulder every time we gather at Mass.

In our Gospel today, ironically, Jesus puts this very question to the disciples, “Do you also want to leave?” He places the question to us today as well. Do you want to leave? But, when we ponder leaving the church and giving up on her, hear the words of St. Peter today, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.” The disciples, too, were caught up in the scandal of the Eucharist. They could not understand Jesus’ teaching about His Body and Blood. But, they also knew that they could not leave their Lord.

You know, in the midst of my own reflection on this moment in the church this week, I found myself in many special places in addition to my usual duties: at the funeral of a dear friend who passed away this week who so deeply loved the Lord; later celebrating Mass in the nursing home and seeing the great joy that our Eucharistic Lord brought to the people there. I worked with music ministers excited to bring a unique vibrancy to our worship as we embark on our new Sunday evening Mass next week. I found myself gathered with a family around the bedside of a loved one in her final hours of life and the calmness that the presence of Jesus in the Anointing brought her and her family. I met with staff at our school excited for a new school year and the chance to teach our children in a faith-filled environment. I met with parishioners who want to make anonymous donations to fellow parishioners in need from the goodness of their hearts. In other words, I met Jesus over and over this week, and I met Him through good and faithful people like you.

So, my dear parishioners, I know the pain of your heart, the anger that you carry, and the desire to step away from the church, even if for a time. And, if that is your ultimate decision, I support and respect it.

But, more than that, I hope that you’ll stay. “Lord to whom shall we go? We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One from God.” If you love the church, remain within and work for her reform. Pray with us, cry with us, laugh with us, learn with us. Help us together make this the place where we find those words of everlasting life that only Jesus can offer. Stay and ask the Lord to lead us through this moment back into his glorious light.

If you’d like to talk about this more, I’m always available. Just let me know.

Lord, to whom shall we go? May the Lord give you peace.

With love and prayers, Fr. Tom.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Rebuild My Church!


More than 800 years ago, the Catholic church was caught up in the midst of perhaps the greatest scandal it had ever seen, a scandal that revolved largely around the clergy of that time. But into the midst of that scandal, one man, St. Francis of Assisi, the founder of the religious order that I belong to, received a miraculous message from Jesus speaking to him from a cross in a small chapel in the Italian countryside. From that cross, Jesus said, “Francis, rebuild my church which you can see is in ruins.” As we know, St. Francis responded to that command of the Lord and ushered in one of the greatest reforms the Church has ever seen, and one of the greatest ages of holiness in the long history of Christianity. St. Francis’ plan for reform was nothing more complicated than the simple belief that the Gospel can be lived; that the Gospel must be lived by all who profess it.

I have been thinking a lot about that story from the life of St. Francis, and that command of Jesus from the cross because as we know, this has been a rough week to be a Catholic in the United States. As the scandal of clergy abuse once again rears its ugly head – from the report out of Pennsylvania, to the story out of St. John’s Seminary in Boston, to the now-disgraced Cardinal McCarrick – this has been a week that challenges many of us as members of the Church. And it is particularly difficult because this is not the first time we have been here. Nearly 15 years ago this scourge first came to public attention and we were mortified that the very priests and bishops we hold in such high esteem could somehow be the perpetrators of such great crimes. We thought and we hoped and we prayed after that terrible moment that we had recognized our wrongs, purged our ranks, changed our ways, cared for those victimized, pledged to never let this happen again.

And yet, here we are – again. I speak today not only as a priest, not only as your pastor. I speak simply as a fellow Catholic in the pew next to you with you. I hear your and anger and I share your anger. And like you, I want to know, how do we move forward from this to be true to our call as a Church faithful to her Lord. Like you I have been on a roller coaster of emotions as these stories have played out in the media. We are angry and hurt. We are embarrassed that these stories are again in the headlines – and even more furious that after more than a decade of focus on the protection of children, the leadership of the church, despite the tremendous progress it has made, has still not yet handled this in a way that gives all of us the assurance that abuse will be rooted out no matter the cost.

These moments can be for those of us who remain faithful members of the Body of Christ disheartening and dispiriting. Among the most heartbreaking questions I have heard this week are the questions that ask, “Why should I even remain a Catholic?” There are two great tragedies that arise from this scandal. First and foremost are the innocent lives of young people that are damaged when those who are supposed to be models of faith and holiness violate their sacred trust. But, the second tragedy are those who lose their faith, lose their church because its leadership has proved unworthy of that trust.

In this moment, it is important that we do three things. First, we must support and pray for every victim of abuse. We must comfort them, help them in their pain, and seek out justice in their name. The second thing we need to do is to continue to make our voice heard to the leadership of the church – to our bishops, cardinals, and even the pope – that we as the people of God will not allow this scandal in any form, or to any degree, continue. We cannot rest until this scandal is truly in our past.

The third things we need to do is to remember why we are Catholic in the first place, and why it is so important that we remain. I don’t know about you, but I am not a Catholic because of any priest, bishop, or even pope. Let me offer a few reasons why, even in the midst of this scandal, we should not abandon our faith or our church.

The first reason is of course because of Jesus. In a profound way, that’s really the only answer. We are Catholic because of Jesus and we stay because of Jesus. We know what life is like without Him. Life without Jesus lacks meaningful purpose; it lacks true direction. We cannot imagine life without Jesus. And, yes, we can find Jesus outside of the church, but this is His church, the one He founded and the way He is present here is like no other place on earth. Jesus promised us that He would never abandon His church, he would never abandon us. God is so much bigger than this moment and ultimately it is our closeness to Jesus that will bring true healing.

When we experience Jesus True Presence in the Eucharist at Mass, or sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament, we get to experience God in a way that many people don’t. Not because of anything that we’ve done to deserve it, but because by God’s grace we know that it He is truly there in front of us. His presence is real. This is the same Jesus we encounter in the confessional who forgives our sins, every time treating us with tender mercy and compassion. It is this Jesus that welcomes the newborn in baptism, blesses couples who marry, who is by the side of the sick and dying as they breath their final breath. We stay because Jesus is present to us and good to us. Every single day, Jesus is good to us.

The second reason we are Catholic is because this is our home, our family. We were born into this family of faith and community of believers and our lives with Jesus are not solitary. It is a life that is lived with others, and it is through them – through you – that we encounter our Lord every day. We need each other. Just think of the ways that God invites us to be His presence through actions great and small. It is this home, this family, this community, that is the place we discover the presence of God in our lives, that we nurture that presence of God, and that we are invited to be the presence of God in our world.

Third, we remain Catholic because it is within this church that we find hope. Every day as our world tries to drag us into darkness, the church remains a beacon of light and hope that speaks words of life into the darkness of the world. It is here that the message is always that we are loved, that we are welcomed, that we are forgiven. It is here that the darkness comes to die as the light of Christ conquers all. Even the most hopeless situations become opportunities for goodness, holiness, and light. And it is that hope that tells us that even in the midst of scandal, love, justice, and mercy will prevail – that our church can and will heal.

We remain Catholic because we know in the depths of our hearts that even despite her failings, we can’t live without the Church. She is our home and our family; she is our beacon in the storm, and our light in the darkness. She is the place where we encounter God most profoundly and discover who we are in God’s sight. And as St. Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life.” We need the Church and the Church needs each one of us.

A man came across three masons who were chipping granite from large blocks. He asked the first what he was doing. He responded, “I’m just hammering this stupid rock.” He approached the second with the same question. He said, “Well, I’m molding this block so it can be used to construct a wall.” He approached the third, who said proudly, “I am building a cathedral!”

My friends, in the midst of scandal, we too can feel as though we’re just hammering away for no good reason. But we must always remember that for we who believe – even in the midst of our brokenness – that resurrection is always the final chapter of our story. Let us hear the words that Jesus spoke to Francis as He speaks them now again to us and rebuild this cathedral that is the church – a cathedral made not of stone and mortar, but build of living stones – built of you and me; built of love and kindness; compassion and mercy; healing and holiness and strength. And let us rebuild it the same way Francis did, by embracing the Gospel in everything we do, and calling our brothers and sisters – all the way up to our bishops and pope – to build this cathedral with us, so we can once and for all leave this scandal behind. It is time to rebuild again – together. Will you build it with me?

May the Lord give you peace.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

What are you hungry for?


A priest friend of mine tells a story of a time a few years ago when he was asked to preside at a very fancy wedding in Rhinebeck, New York. The wedding was as lavish as you would imagine, with all the bells and whistles. After the ceremony, he went to the reception to lead the guests in grace before the meal. The reception was held on the grounds of a grand mansion under a beautiful tent. Laid out before the guests was the most sumptuous buffet you could imagine. There was a large table as long as the eye could see with an ice sculpture in the middle, and arrayed around it were piles of lobsters, shrimp, and shellfish of every kind. As he was about to say the prayer, the shy little flower girl stood by his side trying to see what was on the table. The girl asked what was going on and Father explained that everyone was getting ready to enjoy all the delicious food. The little girl then stepped on her tip-toes to get a better look at the table. She saw all of the lobsters, shrimp, and everything else and said, “But, when does the good food come out? When do they bring out the Fruit loops?”

We find ourselves today in the midst of a four-week cycle that invites us to reflect upon the incredible gift of the Eucharist. Last week we saw the multiplication of loaves and fishes; next week Jesus tells us that He is “the bread of life;” and the week after that He will remind us that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood “has eternal life.” While these weeks focus naturally on the material of the Eucharist – this bread from Heaven, this manna in the desert, this flesh and blood – today reminds us that there is more to eating than food. Jesus said, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.” In other words, Jesus is asking a simple question, and it’s the same one really that the flower girl was asking: what do we hunger for?

Jesus offers us the most incredible food ever – a food that feeds not merely the body for a moment, but the soul for eternity; but he wants to know if this is what we want to eat. We know that we are faced with many competing hungers – things that get in the way of God like hungers for wealth, power, material goods, or popularity; and of course other hungers that come from God like the hunger for love, truth, holiness, happiness, and everlasting life. In our Gospel, Jesus addresses this issue with those who pursued Him after the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves that we heard last week. He wants to know – are they merely seeking signs and wonders? Do they just want more bread? Are they simply hungry for things which satisfy the body today or are they really hungry for what matters – the things that can satisfy the heart and soul? Jesus echoes the question posed by the prophet Isaiah: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?”

We are reminded that only God can satisfy the spiritual hunger in our heart and soul – the hunger for truth, for holiness, for completeness, for wholeness, for happiness, and for love. So, what are we hungry for? Jesus wants us to be hungry for a life of love and service, the kind of service He modeled during His time among us. He wants us to be hungry for forgiveness that connects us to God's mercy and kindness. He wants us to be hungry for a life of holiness and purity that reflects God's own holiness. And, He wants us to be hungry for a life of obedience to God’s will and trust in God’s plan for our lives, which gives witness to the wisdom of God. In other words, we are called as St. Augustine said to “become what we receive.” This is what the Eucharist is all about – not that we merely consume the Body and Blood of Jesus today, but that we become it; that we become Christ in our world, to one another; that we become what we receive today.

It all comes down to that question we began – what are we hungry for? Are we hungry to be fed on the bread that the world offers? That is a false bread, and will only satisfy for a moment but leaves us ultimately incomplete. Or do we hunger for the bread that comes from heaven; the miraculous bread-become-Body and wine-become-Blood made present in our midst on this altar? Do we thirst for the words of everlasting life?

The crowd we see in today’s Gospel clamor for Jesus not because they want holiness and eternal life; they just want more bread. They want to make him a mere king who fills the stomach. But Jesus chastises them for missing the opportunity before them: “You are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” Because of this, Jesus hid away from them. He did not want to be identified primarily with feeding stomachs. He wanted to be seen as One who has come to nourish the human spirit with the food that satisfies every hunger of the human heart, the food that does not perish but that gives life eternally.

The Lord wants to know today, what do we hunger for? Do we hunger for Him and Him alone? He is ready to feed us once again today and everyday. Are we hungry for what only Jesus can give?

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.”

May the Lord give you peace.

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