6 Nov 2016
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Julius Caesar, Pontius Pilate, Joan of Arc, Ma Barker and her Gang, Abraham Lincoln, Adolf Hitler, Mother Teresa—they all had something in common: they all had a strong human will. For that matter, most people have a strong will. We have a drive to do what we think is good for us; a drive to succeed; a drive to live and to thrive. And, you know, life would be so much simpler if everybody would “just think as I do.” Of course, that’s not reality.
The reality is that for every human soul created by God, there’s yet another will put into the mix—to cooperate or to clash with others. If you’re a parent, at some point I’m sure you realized that, “Oh my, this child of mine has a will of its own!” That’s when life at home gets really interesting. What is the struggle sometimes between parents and teenagers but a struggle with the human will?
Of course, there are examples of really fruitful cooperation. I think of Marquette and Joliet, who were of one mind in their explorations of the new world. Or Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, who cooperated on a number of innovations, many of which are everyday items today. We could talk about those first citizens of the United States in 1776 who, even though argued a lot, were nonetheless united in their drive for freedom and a new life.
The human will is an amazing gift from our Creator. No other known creature has a will quite like ours; the will, the drive to become something. The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (?) said rightly that the human person is most human when he is striving to become. In other words, we’re most human when we’re pushing the limits to see what we can do, and what and who we can become. That’s when we’re most human, because we’re exercising our will.
Ironically, it’s when we’re exercising our will that we can also be the least human. In our reading from Maccabees, we have an example of human will gone awry. Some Jews were arrested, “and tortured with whips and scourges by the king, to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law.” One by one they were killed—because their captors willed it to happen.
The debate between the Sadducees and Jesus is another example. The Sadducees were convinced of their own rightness, and their will—their desire—was to be right and to defend what they believed to be true. Every confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees or Pharisees was a contest of wills.
There’s a lot of good that can from us exercising our human will. There’s also a lot of struggle and pain that can come with it. Just think about death. Every human who ever lived, is living, or will live will go through death. It’s just part of our human life. But, you know very well that we’ll do everything we can to avoid it! And that’s what makes death even more painful when it comes—it’s not only the death of a loved one, it’s also the death of the illusion that I am the master of my world.
When I consider the life of the parish—any parish, really—when things are going well, it’s because people are of the same mind and heart; they have the same desire or will. Someone said to me just recently, “Father, you know, there’s a sense of peace in the parish today which hasn’t ever been here before.” And I acknowledged the comment. But I wondered, you know, are people just tapping into some common desire? Maybe people are just willing, and wanting, to live in peace. Maybe; I don’t know.
When eight of our young adults were inspired to start a youth group, there’s another example of people moving forward with a single purpose. They’re each unique individuals, but they each bring something to the group and to their common, shared desire for a youth group. But, you know, the youth group also meshes with the larger will or desire of the parish; it blends beautifully with the mind of the Church. And that’s the “litmus test:” does our human will blend with the larger will of humanity and, most importantly, with the will of God?
Of course, oftentimes in the parish—any parish—when there’s a rough patch, it’s because people’s wills are at odds. It would be a gross understatement to say that the merger of St. Paul, St. Mary, and St. Patrick has been rough. I mean, talk about a contest of wills! I wish I could bottle up all your human drive and will—we’d never have an energy problem! And sometimes that’s good. Sometimes things need to be hashed out; they need to be taken to the woodshed, with respect and charity.
But sometimes that contest of wills does more harm than good. And that’s where Jesus has to step in and say, “Hold on there, my little sheep. What are you arguing about?” We see him do that quite often in Scripture. And that’s when the will of God really has to be listened to: when we find ourselves arguing—without charity, without humility, without mercy or forgiveness. That’s when we need to let our wills and desires “cool down” a bit.
And I think that’s what the past five months have allowed us to do here. I came on board back in July, and that very first weekend I said pretty plainly: “I’m not here as an ally to anyone; I’m here as a friend to everyone.” And I think you’ve taken that to heart. I haven’t been asked to get on anybody’s side on issues, and I’ve heard pretty charitable and complimentary things from you about each other. I see this time in our parish life as fragile—in a good way. It’s like a little plant that’s starting to sprout after eight years—and you don’t want it to get blown over or washed away in the rain. Our parish life is fragile and tender right now—in a good way.
However that contest of wills is beginning to grow again—not in a big way, but it’s there. Of course, it centers around the review of our new Mass schedule that was put into place six months ago. When we still had five Masses, our attendance was at an average of 778 people per weekend. When we went to three Masses, the number dropped to an average of 548. In other words, we lost 230 people.
Now, they didn’t simply disappear; they’re just going to other parishes right now for Mass. They’re over in Brillion and Denmark, De Pere, Freedom, and Kaukauna. And I receive messages from them, through people who are still here at the parish, that “we want to have our Mass time back.” The human will is a powerful thing, second only to the Will of God. And it shows its tenacity and resolve in that request: We want to have our Mass time back.
But who are the contenders in this contest of wills? Well, one is the group of those who “want to have our Mass time back.” Another contender is the wider parish—that little plant which is starting to sprout a new life. But there are other contenders, too, in this contest of wills—probably too many to be aware of, but I’ll mention just two of the big ones.
The first is the Will of God. Now, God isn’t so particular about our Mass schedule; he’s not going to carve into stone tablets what our Mass times are supposed to be. He’s not that concerned about it. But he is the one who, we trust, is generally steering the ship. Where’s the parish going, and how much of it is God’s will, and how much of it isn’t? It’s God’s will that “none of what he has given to the Son will be lost; that all will come to the fullness of life.”
God’s will is a contender in this contest of wills in that he’s constantly reminding us to be: charitable and just, self-sacrificing and thankful for our blessings. Just think about it: When people are unhappy—generally speaking—what do we do? We gossip. We become prideful and convinced of our own rightness. We become wrathful and filled with hate. We become hard of heart. And so, our wills can be in contention not only with other people and other ideas, but with the will of God himself. After all, there’s nothing life-giving about gossip, or pride, or hatred, or a hardened heart. They’re all in direct opposition to the will of God.
And a last big contender in this contest of wills we find ourselves in today is death; specifically, the death of an idea, the death of a way of life. As I mentioned earlier, each of us knows very well that we’ll do anything to avoid death. And so, what happens when life changes and we can’t accept it? Well, the change—the death—becomes even more painful, and we might fight it even more vigorously.
I remember, as a seminarian, there was what seemed like a constant battle between me and God; between my will and God’s. But after awhile I realized the battle wasn’t with God, it was with death—specifically, the death of a way of life that I didn’t want to let go of, but which I knew I needed to let go of if I was ever going to follow Christ as a disciple. Life didn’t pick up again until after I had stopped fighting with death. God had plans for my life, but they couldn’t happen until I let my own plans take second place to God’s.
When I think about these church buildings we have, and the people who built them, I’m reminded that none of these are the original buildings of the congregations. The people built, torn down, built again, and some even built yet again. Our ancestors—your ancestors—knew how to die and rise, how to let go so they could survive and thrive. And that’s an important lesson we can learn from them.
In this month of November, Catholics have traditionally spent time remembering loved ones who have passed away. But especially with parishes that are the result of a merger, it’s a time to remember the parishes that were, but are no longer. “Unless a grain falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a single grain, without fruit.” Saint Clare Parish has begun to move forward; a little plant has begun to sprout . . . because we’ve begun to accept (even if it is with sadness and regret) we’ve begun to accept the passing away of the former parishes.
St. Paul’s, St. Patrick’s, and St. Mary’s were testaments to the faith and willingness of the people to follow God. And, like most of creation, they each had their lifecycle: they were born, they grew up, they thrived, and they began to shrink and diminish. And their lifecycle is bound up with the lifecycle of the Church: Mass attendance continues to dwindle across the board; new vocations to the priesthood are not replenishing those priests who are dying or retiring; cultural values are shifting in some pretty monumental ways. We are contending with death in a big way: the death of a way of life; the death of how we used to understand what it meant to be a parish.
Some of us have begun to accept the passing away of the former parishes of St. Paul, St. Patrick, and St. Mary—not in a spirit of defeat, but with a willingness and desire to build upon what has been given to us. Some of us, however, do not accept the passing away of the former parishes. And so, there’s a pretty strong contest of wills between their own and death.
Our parish life is fragile and tender right now; there are a lot of good things happening, thanks be to God. However that contest of wills is beginning to grow. The question is: What to do with this six-month review of our Mass schedule. Well, after a lot of consultation with councils, parishioners, and other pastors, and after a lot of prayer and deliberation, a two-pronged answer was arrived at.
First, what is going well and growing is going to be kept and nurtured. And so, our current Mass schedule will be maintained as it is. Of course, that’s not going to make everybody happy, but that’s not what I’m here for, and that’s not what I gave up my life for. By God’s hand we are hopefully being led into the ways of death—so that new life can sprout, specifically a new life known as Saint Clare Catholic Parish.
And so, first, our current Mass schedule will be maintained as it is, as we continue down the road of death to old ways and birth to new ways. Secondly, however, our brothers and sisters who go to other parishes, those who “want to have their Mass time back,” have to know that we want them to be a part of Saint Clare. There’s a good thing going here, and we don’t want them to miss out on it.
And they have to know that in this contest of wills over Mass times (and other aspects of parish life) preference will always be given to the will of God, to whatever is life-giving and fruitful, and to the ways of self-sacrificing charity. That’s the spirit we want to foster. And we welcome them to be a part of that spirit at Saint Clare. But their participation—and our participation—in that spirit won’t be because somebody else changed; it’ll be because we changed, because we died a little so that something new and good could come into being.
Now, if you know some of our lost flock who go to other parishes, I challenge you to bring this message from Saint Clare to them. This is a real honest-to-goodness opportunity to practice evangelization. I invite you take copies of this homily to them (and there are copies in the back of church). I invite you to share with them the results of the review of our Mass schedule. It doesn’t sound like they’re going to come here . . . so we’ll have to go to them.
And when you see them, let them know we’re praying for them and that we wish them all goodness and peace. In the meantime, however, Saint Clare Parish will continue to move forward following the Will of God.
If there’s a message to take from our Scripture readings and from this whole question of Mass times, it would be: Don’t be afraid to die for what you believe in; just make sure what you’re dying for is the Will of God, who brings us through death and into new life; always into something new.