Sunday, November 20, 2011

It's a Beautiful Church


Ez 34, 11-12. 15-17
Ps 23
1 Cor 15, 20-26. 28
Mt 25, 31-46

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
November 20, 2011

Deacon Tom Cornell

When is the high point of the Church year? It’s Easter, Holy Week and Easter. That’s when the New Testament story, the story of Jesus, comes to its fulfillment. Everything that comes before leads up to Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and everything after helps to explain what it all means. The Church year ends this week and begins again next Sunday, recalling the events of the Gospel story. And interspersed are the celebrations of the saints.

I know that in this church no Gospel text has been preached on more often than today’s on the Last Judgment and “the least of these my brethren.” So I’m going to skip it. Archbishop Dolan has asked us preachers to stress love of Jesus and love of the Church in these days. I did Jesus last month. It’s all about Jesus, first and last. Now, why love the Church? There’s plenty to love and plenty to cause us wonder. The Catholic Church is the largest voluntary association of people on earth, in all of history, and the oldest ongoing institution in the world, along with the Orthodox Churches of the East. In two thousand years’ time, over so vast an area with so many people, we’ve had the opportunity to make just about every mistake conceivable. It’s no wonder there have been scandals. There was a time, in the mid-15th century, when the Vatican was a scandal, and the term “whore of Babylon” was not inappropriate. So why love this corrupt institution?

First of all, the Church is not corrupt, not in itself. Some of its representatives have been, yes! But the Church remains the Mystical Body of Christ and the Holy Spirit has never, will never desert us. “The gates of hell will not prevail.” Members might fall, some very badly, but the Church remains what it is, bringing Jesus in word and sacrament to us. If it were not for the Church not many people would have ever heard of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, Lord and Savior, King of the Universe. How many of you recognize the name Gilgamesh, the hero demi-god of the Babylonian creation myth? Not many because there was no organization to carry on his memory, no Church of Gilgamesh, as it were. Jesus would be lost to history too were it not that his followers kept together and developed, from New Testament times, the basic hierarchical structure of the Church, with bishops, priests and deacons, the same structure throughout the far-flung ancient world and the same today.

So here we have the Bible stories every Sunday revealing God’s plan of salvation. Then there are the saints. If we have villains, we have the most marvelous heroes too, the saints. Their memories, their stories, their feasts, are strategically placed throughout the year. Their lives tell us what authentic discipleship is all about. Their stories are often sanitized for mass consumption and dumbed down. The details of their lives are censored to suit certain constituencies. Take Saints Francis and Anthony, for instance. Francis was very controversial in his time. He rocked the Church and the state. We don’t hear much about that. He not only excoriated wealth and privilege but the political life of his day. His rule for the Third Order forbade lay members from bearing arms. Hundreds, then thousands then tens of thousands of men joined the Third Order in Italy to avoid military service. The princes, the powerful people of the day, didn’t like that at all. They pressured the Pope and that rule was dropped. They had their way. Money talks!

St. Anthony was a hell-raiser too; he wasn’t just the sweet guy walking around in a brown robe with the Baby Jesus in his arms and a big white lily. He excoriated the bankers of his day. They called him, "Il Martello, "The Hammer." If he were here today he’d be down at Zuccotti Park in New York City, with Occupy Wall Street! He had the Gospel on his side so the bishops had to take him seriously. At his insistence they condemned usury at a Church synod, usury – that’s banks ripping people off. Did you know that the Church today has taken the same stand, essentially in line with Occupy Wall Street? We can be proud. These guys weren’t saps! Our church is truly a champion of the poor and oppressed and of peace.

We just celebrated the feast of Saint Martin of Tours. As the son of a pagan Roman army officer, Martin was forced into the army. The persecution of the Church was already over by his time, and Christianity was now the state religion. But when Martin was baptized he refused further military service and sat out the next war in a prison cell. He was later released. Then he cut his cloak in half to share it with a beggar. He became a monk and later a bishop. St. Martin is counted patron of soldiers and patron of conscientious objectors as well. The patron and model for parish priests is the Cure of Ars, Saint Jean Batiste Vianney. He was an army deserter. So was Lieutenant Joseph Ratzinger.

Don’t misunderstand me. Those who protect the freedom and security of their fellow citizens honorably in uniform deserve our respect and support. But when their patriotism and bravery are abused , when they are sent to unjust and useless slaughter, we must protest in the name of God. Patriotic rhetoric will not make up for the abuse of our soldiers or comfort them when they can not resign after four and five and six deployments because there are no jobs for them back home, and no health insurance for their children if they leave the military.

We should think of the saints as members of our family and ask their intercession with God for our needs. The Archdiocese of New York has petitioned the Vatican to open the Cause of Dorothy Day for canonization as a saint, and the Vatican has agreed. It’s in the works. Cardinal O’Connor, then Cardinal Cooke and now Archbishop Dolan have been eager to advance her Cause. The Dorothy Day Guild met last Tuesday at the Chancery Office to plan our next step. For Dorothy to be beatified she needs a miracle. It looks as if we have one, in Texas, a cure of a brain cancer. She needs at least one more for canonization. Pray for a miracle, one miracle in particular.

You may remember I told you four years ago, in 2007, of a trip I made to Rome to present a young man to Pope Benedict, Joshua Casteel. Joshua had been a West Point cadet, then a US Army Arabic language interrogator at the infamous Abu Graib prison in Iraq. And there he read Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity and converted to Catholicism. He was released as a conscientious objector to war and to military service, with an honorable discharge and full veterans’ benefits. He has been admitted to the Veterans’ Hospital in Chicago with cancer, 31 years old, cancer of the lung, 4th stage, metastasized! Pray for a cure through the intercession of Dorothy Day. It will take a miracle. Joshua’s faith is strong. His parents followed him into the Church. I saw him last spring, at the Riversides Church in the City. He told he had taken the previous year off to nurse his father through his last year, a cancer victim. He is strong, strong in faith.

This is a beautiful faith, and a beautiful church, a beautiful family, and like any other family, with a rascal or worse here and there, but a Mother Theresa, a Damian the Leper, an Ignatius Loyola, a Francis Xavier, a Therese of Lisieux, a Dorothy Day, a Francis, a Clare and an Anthony. They are our examples. They give us heart.

The world we know today is faced with more grave threats than ever before in history, threats to our very existence. If we are to deal with climate change, global warming, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons, with endemic poverty and the just revolutionary claims of the world’s disinherited, know that the Catholic Church is a voice of sanity in the chaos. We have all we need. We have the Book and the table and we have examples to show the way, Dorothy Day not the least among them. We can take heart. 