Dear Good People of Saint Mary,
Welcome, and thank you for being with us today to celebrate new life, a new creation. Where there was death, there is now life; where there was the darkness of ignorance, there is the light of truth. Where there has been doubt and confusion—well, now there is a way. Commit your hearts, join us on the journey as we explore that way that is Christ among us. He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He who is, is now risen. Alleluia!
What an amazing day we are privileged to see—today—as so many thousands come together in the largest space in our area to witness faith in resurrected Life and renew our precious vows of Baptism which make us the new people of God, a holy nation. It is in the liturgy that we are reminded of who we are, and whose we are. The liturgy is the closest thing we know to the life of heaven, and from here we are sent to the world to bring about real change, in the same way that we have been really changed. Life is Liturgy is Mission.
The coming year’s theme will be a parish-wide focus aimed at supporting our intention to bring to life the gifts that God has given you. At St. Mary there is no limit to the ministries and opportunities that exist or are waiting to be brought into existence by those who share particular gifts in an expression of service—all that is found here, or will be developed by our parish family with your participation.
Of this I am sure: my role as your pastor is not to allow you to be a passive recipient of these Sacred Mysteries of Jesus Christ. Our involvement in the life of prayer and service demands that we find a way to discover or deepen a personal relationship with Jesus. This is exactly what so many have been seeking all their lives; it is, in fact, something that many have sought and, not finding it in the Catholic Church, have left the Church to go somewhere else to find it.
It is time we wake up.
Come back to school.
I’ve heard it expressed like this: before the Second Vatican Council (now 50 years ago), the Church thought of herself as those weak and wounded who needed to go to church as a protection program or a place of recovery. This attitude pervaded culture in all churches. We trained ourselves to demand what we wanted like consumers. People left if they felt they didn’t get what they wanted, or were entitled to. Is it possible that, today or ever, we could pretend that Jesus Christ started a Church to serve herself? No such self-centered ideology could possible have been his intention.
No, the Catholic Church was never intended to be a self-help aisle or a support group. Healing and growth only comes through action: prayer and service. Jesus Christ gathered around himself faithful sinners whom he formed as disciples, to go out to others and take his Word and Sacrament to the world. As a seminary is intended to personally form people into clergy and ministry leaders, so the parish is established as the royal house of Christ who forms us into disciples—not to serve ourselves, but to go out and serve everybody else! Our focus is outward, to take all that we have seen and heard and use it for its intended purpose: to be shared.
The Catechism puts it this way: “the ministerial priesthood [clergy] is at the service of the common priesthood [laity]. It is directed at the unfolding of the baptismal grace of all Christians” (n. 1547). It “confers a sacred power for the service of the faithful” (n. 1592). As spiritual fathers, priests call forth and nurture your baptismal priesthood. But the purpose of this service for the people of God is to awaken the service within you that, in turn, you would also serve.
My job description as pastor is the following:
- to cooperate with you in your mission to the world;
- to listen to you;
- to recognize your expertise, your gifts;
- to awaken, deepen your co-responsibility;
- to confidently entrust duties to you;
- to help you explore, discern vocation;
- to form, support you as secular apostles.
Lumen Gentium the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, says that the priest is to recognize, uncover with faith, acknowledge with joy, foster with diligence, appreciate, judge, discern, coordinate, put to good use, and have “heartfelt esteem” for the charisms (gifts) of all the baptized (30). This key role of the priest is particularly precious, considering that half of priests today in the United States will be retired or deceased by the year 2018.
The task requires discernment first to determine what our authentic gifts are. Since gifts are always given as a benefit for others, never for the persons themselves, we can discover how God is calling each one of us concretely to serve him and his creation.
So what spiritual journey are you on?
God loves? …me?
I’d like to quote from a book which I’m going to offer as a book study group this fall, 2014. It is called Forming Intentional Disciples, The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus by Sherry Weddell. She writes:
“Catholicism involves three concurrent spiritual journeys that, in practice, are often treated as separate:
- The personal interior journey of a lived relationship with Christ resulting in intentional discipleship.
- The ecclesial journey into the Church through reception of the sacraments of initiation.
- The journey of active practice (as evidenced by receiving the sacraments, attending Mass, and participating in the life and mission of the Christian community).
“I experienced the separation I once had with some seminarians. We were talking about the experience of a young Catholic friend who had just gone through a dramatic conversion. When I used the term “intentional disciple” to describe our friend, one seminarian responded, “Oh, you mean he has taken up his Catholic identity.”
“Ideally, discipleship and Catholic identity would always be one and the same. Every Catholic would be making all three journeys— to be a conscious disciple of Jesus Christ, a fully initiated Catholic, and an active parishioner— as an integrated whole. But what is often meant by the term “Catholic identity” is simply regarding oneself as Catholic and attending Mass with reasonable regularity. In this view, there is no need to inquire into the nature of one’s lived relationship with God. In short, many Catholics think one needn’t ask about the first journey if the second and third journeys are in place.
“The problem with this view is described by Fr. Damian Ference, a member of the formation faculty at Borromeo Seminary in Ohio:
“All too often those of us in positions of Church leadership presume that all the folks in the pews on Sundays, all the children in our grade schools, high schools and youth groups, all the men in our Men’s Clubs and all the women in our Women’s Guilds, and all the members of our RCIA team are already disciples. Many are not. (The same can be said of staffs and faculties of Catholic institutions.) Our people may be very active in the programs… but unfortunately, such participation does not qualify for discipleship.”
A great fallacy of our generation is that this personal relationship with God is reserved for “saints”—not me, surely. And “that personal discipleship is a kind of optional spiritual enrichment for the exceptionally pious or spiritually gifted,” Weddell says.
Pew’s US Religious Landscape Survey (2010) shows that, when asked about what kind of God they believed in, nearly one-third of American adults who self-identify as Catholics believe in an impersonal God. 60 percent of Catholics believe in a personal God, 29 percent said they believe in an “impersonal force,” and 8 percent said that God was “other” or “both.” Only 48 percent of Catholics were absolutely certain that the God they believed in was a God with whom they could have a personal relationship.
This is the starting point: where are you? How much of our faith can make sense to millions of Catholics—to you or anyone—if the bedrock foundation—belief in a personal God who loves you—isn’t in place?
If this is sounding to you more like an altar call from a Billy Graham crusade (if you can remember those, when George Beverly Shea would start singing “How Great Thou Art”) then you have bought the stereotype that Catholics don’t have personal relationships with Jesus; it something reserved to Protestants spirituality. “We are who we are, right? We’re not them.” Division in the body of Christ continues to do its damage.
Weddell continues: “many, if not a majority, of Catholics don’t know what “normal” Christianity looks like. I believe that one reason for this is the selective silence about the call to discipleship that pervades many parishes. Catholics have come to regard it as normal and deeply Catholic to not talk about the first journey—their relationship with God—except in confession or spiritual direction.”
“One of our most surprising discoveries has been how many Catholics don’t even know that this personal, interior journey exists. Widespread neglect of the interior journey of discipleship has unintentionally fostered an immense chasm between what the Church teaches as normal and what many Catholics in the pews have learned to regard as normal.” It has become comfortable not to step too close to the fire of God’s love. It would seem that if the truth hurts, maybe it is better not to say it.
If a personal relationship with God is doubtful, then how can you speak about gifts—personal gifts from the One who loves you? In the context of a “believing, non-belonging” world where the commitment to a community is reduced to personal choice, everybody can think whatever they want to think, and nobody cares. If there isn’t basic agreement that God is a person in a relationship with his people, one person’s claim to having a particular gift from God can very easily and quickly be judged as arrogance. So it is just easier not to talk about it.
When I ask someone what their gifts are, most often people will respond with a kind of denial, or even indifference, not wanting to appear too sure. But once the conversation happens and people realize that they are in a safe place to talk about it, people get excited about the possibility. “You mean it is a certainty that God gives gifts? —to everybody?
The answer is yes, he does. Our job this year at St. Mary will be to look and see not if we have gifts, but which mixture of gifts each of us has. These gifts are given to us, St. Paul says, to fulfill the intention of God’s creation in Christ: “his gifts were that some should be apostles, prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ (Eph. 4:11-13).
So this is our work this year at St. Mary. Join us bringing to life the gifts you already have! We seek a clear vision which calls us to personal responsibility for each other in loving service. This service is second only to prayer, a conversation with God, someone who listens and responds. With Christ, offer your gifts, a living sacrifice of praise to the glory of God.
Happy Easter to you!