11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 14, 2015
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 14, 2015
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
In today’s gospel Jesus tell us the parable of the mustard seed:
“the kingdom of God … is like a mustard seed” which
“is the smallest of all the seeds” but grows into “the largest of plants.”
When Jesus refers to “the kingdom of God”
he’s usually talking about either heaven or the Church, or both.
In this case he’s clearly talking about the Church.
And so this parable brings to mind how small the Church was in the beginning,
and how huge it’s become today.
Scripture tells us that at the Pentecost there were only 120 believers
gathered when the Holy Spirit descended.
But by the end of the day there were an additional 3000 baptized.
And now we see today there are over 2 billion Christians around the world.
So the Church has gone from 120 people to a 2 billion
and we see what Jesus was talking about:
like a mustard seed we started as small as could be,
but now we are the largest religion in the world.
Then again, is the Church really that big?
How many people who call themselves Christians really are Christian?
Over the last few weeks we’ve celebrated
Lent, Good Friday, Easter, Pentecost, Trinity Sunday
and Corpus Christi Sunday
—the great mysteries of our faith.
But do all these 2 billion Christians really believe that Jesus is God the Son
who died and rose to redeem them?
Do they really believe that there is one God but three divine persons?
And think of the 1.2 billion Christians who call themselves Catholic.
To be more specific, do they believe that Christ gave great authority
to Peter and the other apostles and their successors,
under the guidance and protection of the Holy Spirit,
so that the gates of hell would not prevail against His Church?
Do they really believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist?
Do they really believe, much less try to follow,
the moral teachings of Christ and His Church?
In short, how big is the Church really?
Polls show that only 39% of Catholics in America go to Mass most Sundays.
And amazingly, 58% support “gay marriage”
but only 30% believe in the Real Presence.
And then there was the Pew Study released last month,
that said that in the last 7 years Christians have dropped 8 percentage points
of the US population, from 79% to 71%
and Catholics in particular have dropped from 24% to 21%.
Much has been said in the last two years about the so-called “Francis effect”:
the pope has record high popularity,
and there is talk that in some countries Mass attendance has grown
and many have returned to the faith.
But there is a lot of evidence that this is due
not so much to people believing in
everything Christ and his Church have taught for 2000 years,
as in hoping that Francis will change some of that.
So are they returning to the Catholic Church
or embracing a whole different Church
that exists mainly in the minds of the media and ex-Catholics?
The late great Pope St. John Paul II used to speak of
a “new springtime in the Church,”
in which he looked forward to all sorts of growth and flourishing.
As hopeful and optimistic as John Paul was,
his dear friend and close collaborator, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
who of course later became Pope Benedict XVI,
was a bit more cautious.
When asked about John Paul II’s “New Springtime,”
he would respond with a smile and say things like,
“yes, but before the spring comes the winter.”
I’ve been thinking about all this in the last few months,
through Lent, and Easter and the special feasts of the last few weeks,
and as I’ve enjoyed the coming of a new spring.
In springtime, as we see flowers bloom and fruits blossom;
all the trees grow tall and full with leaves,
and as Jesus says,
“they put forth large branches,
so that the birds of the sky can dwell in their shade.”
But in the winter, as we all know, the leaves are gone from the trees,
branches fall to the ground and nothing seems to grow.
In the last few months I’ve looked look around and seen
more and more Christians embracing ideas that are so contrary
to the teachings of Christ.
And I don’t mean only on sexual morality or marriage.
I consider myself a strong capitalist,
but I see many Christians twisting capitalism to mean
not creativity and responsibility, but greed and envy.
I consider myself to be a supporter
of individual liberties and self-reliance,
but I see many Christians twisting this to excuse
raw selfishness and irresponsibility.
I see Christians using Christian ideas like love, tolerance and peace,
to mean lust, indifference and cowardice.
And I see Christians, especially the young,
becoming confused about Christianity and its truth
because they’ve never fully learned
the beautiful truth of the Church’s teachings
but instead they’ve been taught that Christians
are hateful, backward bigots.
And I see governments promoting the persecution and oppression of the Church:
most barbarically Islamist terror groups murder Christians
in the Middle East and Africa, as the West remains silent.
But also in more subtle, yet real ways, in our own country,
as the government forces Christians to support all sorts of immorality,
and miseducate our children on the meaning of morality.
I see all this, and I wonder: is it spring or is it winter?
And if it’s winter, how soon will we see the leaves falling from the mustard tree,
and its branches wither?
I look out on our congregations on Sunday and I wonder:
will you all be here in 5 years, or 10 years?
Most especially will our young people be here?
Will you be able to stand up to the constant beating
of the media, popular culture, schools, peers and government?
I look out and in my mind’s eye I see ½ of you gone in 10 years.
And I am tempted to weep.
But then I remember,
this is not the first time the leaves have fallen or branches been bare.
We remember that on the first Pentecost the church grew 250 fold, or 25,000%,
from 120 members to over 3000 in one day.
But after that its growth, though noticeable, was very slow:
after 300 years there were still only 5.5 million Christians,
or just 10% of the population of the Roman Empire
—that’s only a 3% growth rate every year.
And we know that in the 11th century and the 16th century,
the Church was torn in two by two great Schisms.
And we remember the 7th century, the Muslim invasion of
the Holy Land and Northern Africa and most of Spain,
and mass defections from Christianity as they were threatened:
“submit or die.”
And yet, the Church has survived, and flourished.
Winter and Spring come and go.
But the tree planted by Christ survives—even in the worst of the winter.
And so will we who remain faithful.
Not because we are strong or good or holy.
But because Christ is strong and good and holy.
Because it’s not our tree—but because it’s His tree.
He planted it and He gives it life.
And because after the winter, the spring does come.
After the Crucifixion came the Resurrection.
After the Romans persecuted Christians for 300 years,
almost all of the Roman Empire was converted in the 4th century
and went on to become the dominant religion in the world.
And even as we see a decline of Christian population in the west,
the Christian population in Africa is burgeoning
from 9 million in 1900 to 390 million today
—from 7% of the population to 35%.
In the winter all the trees and bushes lose their leaves
—except for one kind: the evergreen.
And so while today’s gospel compares the kingdom of God
to a mustard seed and tree,
the first reading and psalm compare it to a Lebanon cedar:
which is, of course, an evergreen.
And as we read in Ezekiel today, God
“…will take from the crest of the cedar,
from its topmost branches tear off a tender shoot,
and plant it on a high and lofty mountain…
“I, the LORD, ….lift high the lowly tree,
…and make the withered tree bloom.”
And so the church is like a mustard seed, but also like a Lebanon cedar.
God has made it grow from the smallest of seeds,
to the great strong tree it’s been for almost 2 millennia.
And will continue to care for it, and prune it, making sure it survives and flourishes,
in season and out.
Now, I don’t say all this to depress you.
It’s just that as I’ve meditated these last few months on the meaning
of all these the holy days from Lent to Corpus Christi
I’ve been thinking of all this.
And it occurred to me that the mysteries behind all these feasts
prepare us for whatever lies ahead,
whether spring, or winter.
Christ did suffer and die on Good Friday out of love for us and to save us.
He did rise from the dead on Easter to conquer sin and death.
He did send His Holy Spirit on Pentecost
to give life and protection to the Church,
and to give each of us a share in the divine life and love
of the Most Holy Trinity, in this world and in the world to come.
He did leave us the sacraments as signs and sources of his grace,
most sublimely the Holy Eucharist, Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ.
And in all this he gives us the grace to bear whatever comes,
strengthening our faith and our courage to be true Christians.
So that no matter what the world says or does
we can be confident that Christ’s Church,
the mustard seed He planted so long ago,
will continue to grow and thrive in every age,
if not in numbers and size, then in grace and holiness.
And we, His faithful servants, will not only survive but flourish.
Whether it be the springtime or the winter.