29th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2012

October 21, 2012
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Springfield, Va.

You know, one of the great consolations of being a priest here at St. Raymond’s
is the kindness of our parishioners.
But sometimes people, even very kind people, complain about what I do.
And I understand that and I try not to let it bother me,
because first of all I know I screw up,
and second, well, I know that you can’t please all the people all the time.
Besides, I’m a big boy, I can handle,
especially when criticisms are presented with charity.

Sometimes, though, it can be a little frustrating.
Especially when I get comments that go in exactly the opposite directions.
For example, a few weeks ago I got a number of notes from parishioners
telling me my homily was absolutely beautiful and powerful,
well organized, clear, methodical and moving.
And the same day I got a couple of notes from other parishioners telling me
it was the worst homily they’d ever heard, it was hurtful, rambling, and cold;
and that I should be ashamed of myself.

What do you do with that?
Sometimes it kind of reminds me of today’s Gospel,
where John and James come up to Jesus and say:
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Even so, lately the number of complaints
about my homilies have gone up noticeably.
And even though the number of compliments have also gone way up,
way more than the number of complaints,
I still feel I need to consider the concerns at the core
of some of the complaints.

In particular, that I’m preaching too much about politics,
and that I use language that is too direct and too passionate.
And that I seem to be “telling people how to vote.”

Let me begin by saying, in everything a priest does
he should take to heart what Jesus says to his apostles today:
“whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant;…
For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve.”
We are not to “lord” our authority over our people, but to humbly serve them.

But the thing is, notice what Jesus says to John and James today:
“to sit at my right or at my left is not mine to give
but is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
His Father had already decided who would sit where in the Kingdom,
so even though Jesus came to serve us, beginning with his apostles,
he came to serve His Father first—to be obedient to his Father’s plan.

Also, remember what John and James call Jesus.
Before they tell him what they want him to do for them, they first call him: ,
“Teacher.”
Jesus is a servant, who serves by teaching.
How well does a teacher serve his students, if he tells them just what they hear.
So, Jesus serves by teaching them what they need to hear,
what his Father wants them to hear.

So, as a priest, that’s my job: to serve you by teaching;
to teach not what you want to hear,
or what I want you to hear,
but what Jesus and his Father want you to hear.

Now lately some have been upset that I’m preaching too much about politics.
But I’m not really preaching about politics.
I’ve been preaching about Christ’s teaching, the Church’s teaching,
and calling attention to the obvious conflicts
between the world and that teaching.
Some say, but Father, what about the wall of separation of Church and state?
But should the Church be silent when the state makes immoral laws,
or when candidates are in favor of immoral laws?
Good lord, how many times has the church been criticized for remaining silent
and letting immoral laws stand unquestioned?

For example…
In the year 1839 Pope Gregory XVI issued a document called “In Supremo,”
reiterating the Church’s ancient teaching against slavery,
specifically reproaching those who:
“dare to …reduce to slavery
Indians, Blacks or other such peoples….
as if they were not humans but rather mere animals.”

Unfortunately, some Catholics, in particular, some American bishops and priests
—especially Southern bishops and priests—
tried to argue that the doctrine didn’t apply to American slavery,
because somehow it was “different.”
It seems they got caught up in the prevailing attitude of the culture around them
and were influenced more by what their people wanted them to say,
than what Christ and the Church demanded that they say,
and so either twisted papal teaching into something it was not,
or simply chose to remain silent.

This, of course, led the laity to be confused about the morality of slavery.
And that confusion led to a terrible social disaster just a few years later,
when in 1857, a supposedly “devout Catholic” named Roger Taney,
writing as the fifth Chief Justice of the United States,
wrote the opinion in the Supreme Court case known as “Dred Scott,”
upholding the institution of slavery in the America.

This is what happens when bishops and priests
fail to clearly point out laws that are evil in the sight of Christ.
And so slavery continued, and 600,000 Americans died in the Civil War,
and millions of Black Americans suffered racial oppression
for a 100 years after that.
And while their parishioners may have been happy in their pews,
we are ashamed of the failures of those southern priests and bishops.

But when priests and bishop speak up,
and serve their people by teach the truth,
even when people get tired of hearing it,
wonderful things can happen.
Almost exactly a century after the Dred Scott case, in 1956,
an American Catholic bishop served his people
by stubbornly repeating the teaching of the Church,
and even in the face of the mockery and violence,
even by his own people,
refused to conform himself to public sentiment,
refused to accept some artificial line between Church and state
that would defend the racial segregation of the deep South.
His name was Francis Rummel, the Archbishop of New Orleans,
and what he did was desegregate the Catholic schools of his archdiocese. And when large groups of Catholic lay people continued to try to block his efforts,
after ample warning, he excommunicated their leaders.

Imagine if the American Catholic bishops of the mid-1800’s
had been as courageous as Archbishop Rummel:
if they had stood united against slavery,
banging the drum of justice over and over again
so their people would finally listen, and understand. Maybe the Dred Scott case would have been decided the same way.
But maybe it would have been without Catholic Justice Roger Taney’s help.

Now, some say if the Catholic bishops and priests in the South
had actively opposed slavery they would been both marginalized
and actively persecuted.
Maybe.
Some say all southern Catholics would’ve been persecuted,
or that southerners would have left the Catholic Church in droves.
Maybe.

But then again, isn’t that what Jesus is talking about in today’s Gospel
when he asks: “Can you drink the cup that I drink”?
He’s talking about the same cup he talks about in the garden of Gethsemane:
“My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me;
nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
The cup of suffering, the cup of the Cross, the cup of his blood poured out.
“For the Son of Man did not come to be served
but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Acceptance of suffering is part of being a Christian.

Of course slavery is behind us, but unfortunately,
many Catholics now accept an even greater social evil.
Because while it’s horrible to take away an innocent person’s freedom,
it is clearly even worse to take away an innocent person’s life.
And so we face the abomination of the 21st century: abortion.

Yet the popes in our time have taught very clearly on this as well:
the Church has constantly and infallibly condemned abortion
as a grave evil—a mortal sin.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae, in 1995:
“by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors
….I declare that direct abortion
… always constitutes a grave moral disorder,
since it is the deliberate killing of an innocent human being.”

Fortunately, virtually all the American bishops, and most priests,
see this very clearly.
Maybe they don’t all always speak up about it as they might.
Still, one wonders if they imitated Archbishop Rummel,
acting a bit more forcefully,
not worried about pleasing their people
but about serving their people by teaching them the truth,
one wonders if there wouldn’t be less confusion among Catholics
about abortion today.
One wonders if Catholics wouldn’t abandon any party or candidate
who publically supported the killing of innocent human beings by abortion,
just as (today) they would surely abandon any party or candidate
who publicly supported the oppression of innocent human beings
by slavery or unjust discrimination.

But this not just about abortion.
The pope has reminded us, time and again that we must defend,
both the right to life
and traditional marriage (one man/one woman),
and that these are, in his words, “not negotiable.”
And it’s also about religious freedom, especially here in America.
As the pope reminded American Catholics just last January:
“It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States
come to realize the grave threats
to the Church’s public moral witness…
The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated…
Of particular concern are …attempts …to limit
that most cherished of American freedoms,
the freedom of religion.”

And so the bishops and priests cannot, will not, be silent
about these 3 non-negotiables: life, marriage and religious liberty.
Even if it means a little suffering.
If I suffer from a few harsh complaints
or feeling I’ve let you down by being a poor preacher.
Or if you suffer through a homily that makes you feel uncomfortable or bored.
Or even if the Church suffers the loss of parishioners
who refuse to drink from the cup of Christ’s suffering
and instead to go to a church that will make they feel good.
What matters is that we are servants of God,
and learn from God how to rightly serve each other.

All this is not about politics.
And it’s not about telling you how to vote.
It’s about the truth and the teaching of Christ and his Church.
About learning from the terrible mistakes of the past
in order not to repeat those mistakes today.
It’s about warning you against those who embrace intrinsic evils
that will destroy America.
It’s about being a servant of Jesus Christ,
even when it’s difficult, even when it means drinking of the cup of suffering.

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