11th Sunday of Ordinary Time
June 13, 2021
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 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 that only 1.2 billion Christians call themselves Catholic.
Which means 40% of Christians are not in “full communion”
with the Church Jesus founded.
To be more specific, they don’t 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?
They don’t believe that Jesus is present in the Eucharist,
or they don’t all believe, much less try to follow,
the moral teachings of Christ and His Church?
Then again, most folks who call themselves “Catholic”
don’t really believe those things either.
Polls show that prior to the COVID shutdown only 21.1% of Catholics in America
were going to Mass most Sundays.
And amazingly, 57% support “gay marriage”
but only 28% believe in the Real Presence.
Which all begs the question, how big is the Church, the believing Church, really?
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.
In springtime, as we see flowers bloom and fruits blossom;
all the trees grow tall and full of 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 around and seen
more and more Christians embracing ideas that are so contrary
to the teachings of Christ.
I am a strong 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 our own country, as the government, especially government schools,
tries to force Christians to support all sorts of immorality and lies,
and miseducate our children about history and about liberty.
I see all this, and I wonder: is it springtime, or even summer, in the Church,
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:
even with so many returning after COVID,
will you all still 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 half of you gone in 10 years
—and the COVID shutdown as a preview of that.
And I am tempted to weep.
But then I remember,
this is not the first time the leaves have fallen or branches have 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 685 million today
—from 7% of the population to 50%.
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, meditating on the meaning of all these the holy days
from Lent to Corpus Christi,
it seems that 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 whether it be the springtime, or the summer, or the winter,
we, His faithful servants, will not only survive,