23 September 2018

Selfish ambition. Disorder. Every foul practice.

25th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

When I first read the readings for this Mass, I smiled. The Holy Spirit is very much with us still! But as I began to pray over the readings and mull over what I would preach about, my smile turned into a grimace, and I got incredibly uncomfortable. Given the current mess in the Church, we can't hear James' questions w/o squirming just a little. “Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” he asks. “Is it not from your passions that make war within your members?” We have to blush a bit when we hear James say, “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice.” Jealousy. Selfish ambition. Disorder. Every foul practice. Indeed. And what are we to make of the disciples' silence when Jesus asks them what they are bickering about? Every mom and dad knows that silence. The kids are arguing over something trivial or embarrassing. It is at once comforting and disconcerting that our ancient readings almost perfectly describe our contemporary ecclesiastical tragedy. Fortunately, Jesus gives us – you and me – a way out: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

The disciples go silent when Jesus confronts them about their bickering. Instead of listening carefully to his teaching about his death and resurrection, instead of admitting their fear of and ignorance about their teacher's future, they choose to argue about who's the greatest among them. We know that they know they are doing something foolish b/c. . .well, their embarrassed silence. But why is arguing about who's the greatest a problem? Simply put: ambition is one of the deformed offspring of pride, the deadliest of the deadly sins. Ambition tempts us to seek glory for the sake of glory. It teases us with promises of adulation, respect, and power. It creates in us a festering arrogance that thrives on deceit, theft, abuse, and manipulation. Ambition serves itself first and always, and serves others only when doing so promotes a greater ambition. In the corporate world, we hear the ambitious called “ladder climbers.” In the world of the Church, we say that ambitious clergy have “scarlet fever,” an unhealthy desire for clerical promotion, a desire that runs roughshod over their promise to serve. The disciples are laying out their ambition for all to see. When Jesus sees it, he shows them a child and admonishes them, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me. . .”

You don't have to be a theologian to see where some among the clergy went wrong. Ambition for higher office breeds a lust for power and influence. Power and influence breed deceit and manipulation. Deceit and manipulation breed a need to control who knows what and when. And so on and on and on. You end up mired in a morass of trading favors, blackmail, extortion, and trying to silence whistle-blowers. Instead of serving God's people to the limits of their gifts these men chose to serve themselves and their deviant needs, leaving thousands wounded and permanently scarred. And the subsequent cover-ups reveal a whole new layer of ambition – the challenge to “get away with it” and continue on like nothing at all has happened. Jealousy. Selfish ambition. Disorder. Every foul practice. The rot is deep, but it is not deeper than the reach of God's grace. The scandal casts a huge shadow over the Church. But no shadow survives direct sunlight. Ambition is a subspecies of Pride and the antidote to Pride is humility – yours, mine, ours together as a witness to the might of God's justice and His mercy.

The most common question I get about this mess is: “Father, what can the laity do?” Some want to withhold donations. Write letters. Protest outside bishops' residences. I remind them that this is a spiritual war not a political campaign. Spiritual wars are fought with spiritual weapons: prayer and fasting. Growth in holiness. Cultivating personal humility to oppose pride. Service to others in the name of Christ. Worthy reception of the sacraments. Spiritual wars are fought on many levels all at once: the cosmic level, the national level, the diocesan and the parochial, and especially, the personal level. When was your last visit to the confessional? Are you reading your Bible? Praying the rosary? Fasting when you can? Doing good works for the greater glory of God? Are you nurturing self-righteous anger? A desire for vengeance? You are a member of the Body of Christ, and the spiritual health of Christ's Body is measured by the spiritual health of her members. What you can do for the Church is to get well spiritually. Be a shining witness to the world of exactly how powerful God's mercy really is. You can – through your prayer and witness – stand against the darkness that threatens to overwhelm many of our brothers and sisters in the Church. Receive them as children of the Father. . .and receive Christ in turn. 
Our problems are far from over. And the Enemy is looking to recruit complacent, despairing Catholics who can't see a way out. The way out of this mess is to follow Christ. To Jerusalem and to the Cross. Yes, there will be suffering and pain, but the Truth will set us free.

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