25th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
I lost a few dozen friends yesterday. Mostly people I've never met. Facebook friends. One of these “friends” attacked someone I do know in person, calling her a “sheep in the flock of Satan” b/c she suggested that he lacked a sense of humor. Another facebook friend insisted that Pope Francis is a communist infiltrator bent on destroying the Church. Still another one kept harassing me as a “Republican stooge” b/c I think Planned Parenthood should be defunded for trafficking in harvested human organs. It was an exciting morning. The saddest part for me – as a priest – is that most of those causing me so much anguish on facebook are Catholic. Anti-Pope Francis Catholics. Pro-abortion Catholics. Holy-than-the-Blessed-Virgin-Mary Catholics. Anti-everyone-who-doesn't-agree-with-me-100%-on-every-issue Catholics. I kept thinking: the Devil must be laughing himself silly watching us bickering over who's the Real Catholic! Jesus tells his disciples what's waiting for him in Jerusalem: betrayal, death, and his eventual resurrection. They didn't understand any of this. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were arguing about which of them would be the greatest in his kingdom.
Things haven't changed much in 2,000 years. Jesus reveals to his friends what will happen to him at the end of this trip. He will be handed over to the authorities, beaten, killed, and three days after, he will rise from the tomb. This is astonishing news. But rather than spend their time asking Jesus questions about the Good News, or planning out how they would survive w/o him, the disciples bicker over who's going to be the greatest among those Jesus leaves behind! Seriously. You have right there with you the long-promised Messiah, the Savior of Mankind, your teacher and friend, and he tells you that he's going to be murdered and then resurrected, and all you can think about is who's the Best Disciple Ever!? Who's the Boss? And here we are 2,000 years later bickering over who's the Real Catholic; who's inside the Church, who's outside; whether or not the Pope is really the pope; which cardinal or bishop is trying to influence the upcoming Synod. Jesus doesn't rebuke his disciples for being so astonishingly petty. He doesn't rebuke us either. He says to them and to us, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
When Jesus asks the disciples what they were arguing about on the way, the gospel tells us that “they remained silent.” First smart thing they've done on this trip. Why are they silent? B/c they are embarrassed. They don't understand most of Jesus teaches them. They aren't courageous enough to ask him questions. However, they are ambitious enough to jockey for power behind Jesus' back. Jesus deals a lethal blow to their ambition when he reveals to them that the greatest among them will be the servant of all. To make his point, he puts a small child in the middle of the group and says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me. . .” Whoever takes in the lowest, the least powerful, the weakest, the most humble, the most vulnerable, the smallest in the world's eyes receives Christ himself. In the world, to the world there is nothing more useless than the weak, the powerless, those who simply do not count as Worthwhile. But to Christ, these are the ones – the little ones – who will take us to heaven. These are the ones who will open the gates and let us in. While we bicker with one another about purity and politics and conspiracies, the little ones all over the globe are standing ready to welcome us to Christ. Will we receive them? If not, we should follow the example of the disciples and remain quiet in an embarrassed silence.
My facebook drama over the weekend was prompted by discussions of the Holy Father's visit to D.C. and NYC. He has more traditional Catholics upset with his talk about climate change and the abuses of capitalism. He has more progressive Catholics upset with his talk condemning same-sex “marriage” and abortion. If you follow news about Pope Francis' sometimes “off the cuff” remarks you know that our media are delighted to misreport and misinterpret just about everything he says and doesn't say. I'm betting that this week our TV's and newspapers will be stuffed with all sorts of fables and fairy-tales about the Pope saying and doing this and that. The Holy Father is coming to the U.S. to carry out his ministry as the successor to St. Peter, his apostolic duty to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. He's coming to remind us that if we hope to receive Christ, we must receive the least of God's children. He's not coming to endorse politicians or approve of public policies or condemn impure Catholics. He's coming to do the job the Holy Spirit gave him to do: to preach and teach as Jesus himself preached and taught. Nothing more, nothing less.
What will we do during the Pope's visit? How will we receive his message? James scolds the Jewish Christians: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. . .Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” Sound familiar? The Greek James uses in his letter tells us that the conflicts in the Church then were bloody fights, serious maiming and killing among various factions. What were they fighting about? We don't know the specific issues, but James' language tells us that there were those who wanted to impose their personal preferences on the whole Church; fights over who would be in charge; and fights started by public criticism of Church members. IOW, those who wanted their own way regardless of costs; those who wanted authority and power; and those who didn't want to live up to the moral law. Maybe James wrote his letter to the American Church!
Will the Holy Father's visit be a time of disorder for the Church? Or will the factions among us manage to set aside jealousy and selfish ambition to receive him as the Vicar of Christ? That's a question too big for you or me to answer. Let's ask it this way: how will you, how will I receive the Holy Father this week? Can I set aside ambition and ideology and the need to be right and welcome his message. Can you? Can we receive him like a little child, welcoming him into our national family as an apostle? Can we listen – truly listen – to what he has to say and give it the weight his office deserves? If we will be followers of Christ, children in the kingdom, then we must set aside the measures of this world and hear with the ears of faith. The world tells us to see everything in terms of politics – money and power. The world tells us to hear everything in terms of prohibition or permission. Christ tells us to receive him in the least of his. That's the fruit of righteousness and the way to peace.
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