10 June 2018
10th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
In the 1st Century B.C., the city of Rome was called for the first time the “Eternal City.” The poet Albius Tibullus gave it that name—and for good reason. The Romans were strong warriors who defeated any enemy that came their way. And the Roman Empire extended throughout the known world. After Rome was given that name, the “Eternal City,” people really began to believe that if the city fell, the rest of the world would, too.
Of course, as we know, it wasn’t eternal. The Roman civilization gradually deteriorated from the inside out, and in the year 410, the Eternal City was sack by the Visigoths. And that’s a story which is repeated throughout history. Civilizations rise and fall, and new ones take their place. The same can be said of the Church, which is a society with its own brand of civilization.
Just go to the internet and look up “church ruins,” and you’ll find all sorts of pictures and stories of areas in the world where the Church was, and is no longer; or areas where the Church has changed so much that one type of Christian society has been replaced by another over time. Civilizations rise and fall and change. It’s just a fact of life.
But Christianity is different. I mean, it changes through time, like anything else. But it’s supposed to actually be “eternal,” like Heaven, like God. We might even think the same thing about, say, the United States. We can’t conceive of there not being a United States. And yet, neither of these—Christianity or the country—is a “for sure” thing. That’s what history teaches us: we can’t take anything for granted—not even such enduring things as the Church and the country.
And I mention this because for the past several months Bishop Ricken has been asking the priests, and pastoral and parish leaders, to consider the question (and I’m paraphrasing here): If your parish were no longer there...would anyone notice? Would the wider population be affected at all if your parish were no longer there?
And it’s an excellent question because it lays it right out there that not even the Church (on earth) is eternal. It, like any other society, rises and falls. And so, if the Church were to simply disintegrate in our little corner of the world, would anyone notice? Is the civilization we call “Catholic living” really that important to the wider population? Well, from all the data, it would seem the answer is generally “no.”
Now, that’s not necessarily a reason to get depressed. But it is a reason to seriously reconsider what we’re doing, and what we’re not doing. Our strength isn’t in thinking that the Church will just always be there. Instead, our strength is in acknowledging our frailty.
That’s why we go to Confession, isn’t it? We go in the little room, and we admit our weakness to God. And he says, “Don’t worry about it—I forgive you. And here’s some of my grace to help you.” Right? Our strength is in admitting our weakness, our frailty. God goes on forever, the Church in Heaven goes on forever. But the neighborhood Church? Who says that goes on forever? That’s not a sure thing. And our strength lies in acknowledging that.
And that’s why Bishop has put that question out there to the priests and parish leaders: IF your parish were no longer there, would anyone notice? What would be the loss to the surrounding population? And if the answer is, “Well, there wouldn’t be any loss,” then it’s a good sign we need to change what we’re doing.
In Saint Paul’s letter today to the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:15), he really highlights what our relationship is to the surrounding population, whether they’re other Christian denominations, non-believers, migrant workers, or what have you. He writes, “Everything indeed is for you, so that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people may cause the thanksgiving to overflow for the glory of God.”
And that’s a pretty dense sentence, so let me break it apart. Saint Paul says, “Everything indeed is for you,” meaning all the grace and goodness God has given me, the individual, is for “my good,” but it’s given to be shared, to be spread. For instance, God forgives me—freely. So I, in turn, forgive my neighbor. That’s a way the grace of God (and the relevance of the faith) is spread. Or maybe God has given me a positive outlook on life. So I, in turn, share that optimism with those who need it. (Whether or not they accept is their business, but we share it anyway). That’s a way grace is spread out.
Or if I go to a football game, or a soccer game, or a track meet, I’m going to share my enthusiasm for life—while wearing my St. Clare t-shirt (of course, we need to get St. Clare t-shirts to make that happen). But that’s a way others can connect the Church and faith with life outside these walls—that God can be present and enjoying a game between his sons and daughters. “Everything indeed is for you,” says St. Paul, meaning all the grace and goodness God has given me, the individual, is for “my good,” but for everybody else’s, too.
St. Paul goes on: “...so that the grace bestowed in abundance....” Now, that’s not God’s grace bestowed on us—that’s God’s grace bestowed out on the world by us: an “abundance” of grace, an “abundance” of goodwill and peace, an “abundance” of neighborly encouragement, an “abundance” of looking out for the lost and the forgotten—even those right in front of us.
“...So that the grace bestowed in abundance on more and more people (out there)...may cause the thanksgiving to overflow....” Going out and sharing God’s grace with people in the area isn’t about meeting a consumer need; it’s about meeting a human need—the need to know that “I am worth something to somebody,” and the need to give back—even if that giving is a simple “thank you.”
But this thanksgiving is directed not to “me” or even “us” as a Church but, as St. Paul says, “for the glory of God.” It’s been pointed out by many leaders in the global Church that the Church is not a social services organization. We don’t exist to provide a service. We exist to reconnect God with his lost sheep. We exist to undo the events of the Garden of Eden, and to remind people where the purpose and meaning of their lives come from, and where basic human hope and love come from. Really, we exist to help people be the sons and daughters of God that they are.
We have a wonderful message to share with others outside these walls. But we can’t think that “somebody else will just take care of it,” or that “the Church will always be around to do that.” We can’t take that for granted.
If our parish (or any parish) were no longer to exist, would the wider population notice? Would it make a difference at all in others’ lives? Hopefully, the answer would be “yes”—hopefully they'd miss our presence. But it’s not a sure thing. But we increase our chances of making a difference--and being relevant--every time we step out and the share the grace God has blessed us with.
That’s where our hope lies: the grace of God and responding to the simple call to share that abundance of grace with those around us.