Thursday, May 9, 2013

Our Love makes us Credible

Homily from the 5th Sunday of Easter, 2013

“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

This is what Christ says should be the distinguishing characteristic of his disciples: that we are experts at loving others.  When looking back at the history of our faith, we can see that when the Church has excelled in love, it has grown and flourished.  We think of the first few centuries when Christians lived in close community, served the needs of the poor, and witnessed to their faith even to the point of death.  The monks and hermits and scholars of the middle ages who preserved culture and sought spiritual wisdom.  The mendicant orders of Dominicans and Franciscans who led lives of poverty and zeal.   How can we even begin to number the many other millions of Catholics, of Christians throughout the centuries and today who are animated by incredible love and sacrifice for others, who have been and who are true disciples of Christ because they follow in his footsteps of love.

Yet, in recent years I know that many of you, like myself, are very concerned to see how the reputation of our Church, our mother, has been badly damaged.  I think it is safe to say that for many people in our society today, the Church’s beauty, her virtue, her compassion, her generosity of heart and overflowing love have been overshadowed by political battles and controversial social teachings.

Some have said: the problem is with those who lead her.  If they would just stop so rigidly holding on to outdated and intolerant teachings.  If the hierarchy would just get out of the way and allow the Church to adjust to modern ideas and ways of thinking, then we could be the Church of love again.  Then the world would see in the Catholic Church the love of Christ.

That was the sentiment that I heard so frequently during the recent papal elections – that the hierarchy needed to change the teachings of the Church – I’m sure many of you heard these thoughts expressed over and over.  That basically the hierarchy is keeping the Church from being a sign of love for the world, keeping the Church from following Christ’s commandment given in our Gospel today.

And then the Cardinals elected Pope Francis.  And wasn’t that interesting.  Because notice, the Pope has not changed a single Church teaching.  In fact, he has reaffirmed teachings, even controversial teachings.  But what a difference in how he has been received, huh?  Why?  Because Pope Francis seems to understand that people recognize the face of Christ most clearly not in teachings, but in loving actions.  This is how people know that we are disciples, this is what opens the doors of the heart and mind: love.  When we encounter love, when we experience love, we experience God, God is glorified.  When Pope Francis stopped the pope mobile and went to visit and kiss the disabled, when he visited those in prison on Holy Thursday, when he decided to live simply with other clergy and religious in the Casa Santae Martae – God was glorified, people recognized a disciple of Christ.  And then, only then, they were ready to hear what he had to say, ready to hear the teachings.  Why would you listen to someone speak about what is good and evil, why would you care what they were teaching, if you did not recognize by their actions of love that they were close to God?

Christ did not say in the Gospel passage we hear today what many people might think he should have said: “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you make sure that everyone is faithful to my teachings.”  I’m not saying that we should not care about teachings!  But what I am saying is that the world will only listen to those who are faithful to the teachings of Christ when it recognizes that we are his disciples by our love that reaches out into the world.  And I’m not just talking about the pope or bishops or priests, although they must certainly take the lead.  But the credibility of the Church, the reputation of our faith, rests on all of our shoulders.

I think of how often it has happened to me that after being the recipient of compassion or generosity from someone I have been prompted to reevaluate my ideas about my impressions or beliefs.  Hasn’t that happened to all of us?  How many of those in our community would be likewise prompted to reevaluate their take on the Church after a positive encounter with one of us?

There is so much negative pr out about the Church, and that is not likely to change any time soon.  In fact, that has always been the case.  We could try to argue, to defend the teachings until we are horse from talking.  Try to convince people that we are a faith that teaches love of neighbor and enemy, for that matter.  That is not intolerant but that defends those who are persecuted and alienated from society.  And maybe we might convince a few people, although I doubt very many.  And even if we did, I’m not sure what kind of a victory that would be.  “Okay, I guess you’re not as sinister as I thought.”

But the Church cannot fundamentally be a group that is bound together by a creed.  We are bound together by the life, the love of Christ, a love that we must live by and teach to our children and explain to our world.  And this is what will make the Church grow and thrive, not primarily argumentation about doctrinal points, as important as they might be.  Think about the Early Church for a moment.  They had no common Creed or Catechism.  They had horrible pr – they were accused of being cannibals and of being enemies of the state.  They were being violently persecuted and exterminated.  And yet the Church has never grown so quickly and been so vibrant.

And this is because the early Christians were so profoundly aware that what bound them together, what binds us together in Christ, the grace that we receive in the sacraments, cannot be explained so much as it is lived, as it is demonstrated, as it is revealed in our love for others.  And not primarily in the hierarchy, although the holiness and leadership of the hierarchy is critical, but so is a lived holiness of life by Christians who are living and loving in the day to day world.

Pope Francis gave an interview in 2011 with an Argentinian Catholic news agency.  In the interview, then Cardinal Bergoglio spoke about what he called a sickness that is undermining the Church in the West.

“We priests,” he said, “tend to clericalize the laity, focusing fundamentally on the things of the clergy and, more specifically, the sanctuary, rather than on bringing the Gospel to the world.  We do not realize it, but it is as if we infect them with our own disease. And the laity — not all, but many — ask us on their knees to clericalize them, because it is more comfortable to be an altar server than the protagonist of a lay path. They begin to believe that the fundamental service God is asking of them is to become greeters, lectors or extraordinary ministers of holy Communion at Church rather than to live and spread the faith in their families, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, and beyond.

The reform that’s needed, he continued in that interview, is “neither to clericalize nor ask to be clericalized. The layperson is a layperson and has to live as a layperson with the power of baptism, which enables him to be a leaven of the love of God in society itself, to create and sow hope, to proclaim the faith, not from a pulpit but from his everyday life. And, like all of us, the layperson is called to carry his daily cross — the cross of the layperson.”

Pope Francis teaches us, guides us, leads us, and inspires us.  And he is an example to us of the love of Christ – he kisses babies, maybe hundreds, he washes prisoner’s feet.  But these actions are primarily meant to be gestures and signs for us that are meant to point the way of authentic discipleship that we are all called to live.  Yet Pope Francis reminds us that the Church is sick, very sick, if Christ is only preached by the hierarchy within its own walls.  Your work, the work of every lay person, is to bring glory to Christ in the world, to make his life, his love tangible, real, incarnate in the places where you live, in our society and culture.

“This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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