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Stewardship: not a fundraising program but a way of life

Archbishop Wenski's homily to members of International Catholic Stewardship Council

Archbishop Thomas Wenski preached this homily while celebrating the opening Mass of the International Catholic Stewardship Council’s 59th annual conference, Sept. 12, 2021 in Orlando. The ICSC meeting took place Sept. 12-15.

“Restore our joy.” This is a wonderful theme for your conference this week – especially as you prepare for a transformational future beyond this current coronavirus environment. But I would be remiss if I did not begin by thanking you – in my name but also in the name of all the bishops for all that you do for the Church to promote stewardship.

All our parishes and dioceses have experienced some financial pain during these months in which the “normality” of our ecclesial and liturgical lives has been so disrupted. Our diocesan stewardship offices have done great work in encouraging people to give online – not only to help our parishes but to help our people who also were hurting financially because of this virus, that if it did not infect all of us certainly has affected every one of us. Of course, stewardship is not just a way to increase the Sunday offertory, it is not about fundraising. Stewardship is not a program; it is a way of life; it is the way of life of those who have opened wide the doors of their hearts to Christ.

Here, I guess, I am preaching to the choir: stewardship is not all about money but our money — and the way we use it — is all about stewardship. To say that we are “stewards” is to say that we are not the “owners” of our time, talent or our treasure. The only things we can rightly claim to own are our sins. Everything else belongs to God. But God does make us “managers” or “administrators” of what is his to act on his behalf.

Today’s Gospel reading is taken from the 8th chapter of St. Mark — this is about halfway through Mark’s Gospel. In the preceding chapters, we witnessed the beginning of Jesus’ ministry when he gathered a group of disciples to himself, and he went about Galilee doing good through some remarkable miracles.

As I remind my priests, Jesus didn’t start off talking about the cross; he started off by first making friends, establishing relationships with the people, people whom he met at their level, speaking their language.

(I tell my priests that because too often it seems in our contemporary pastoral life we start off with the cross. For example, a young couple comes to a parish rectory inquiring about arrangements for a wedding and instead of being congratulated by the priest or more likely the parish secretary, and instead of perhaps asking how they met and thereby establishing some connection with them, the couple is asked, “Are you registered here? Do you use the church envelopes?” You see what I mean, too often we start off with the cross.)

I think this is perhaps the genius of Pope Francis. He understands that evangelization is first about an encounter. “Come and see,” Jesus tells those first disciples. They come, they spend time with him, they follow him because his personality, his words, his deeds are attractive. In a word, they experience the Joy of the Gospel.

But as they continue to walk with him, he forms them into his “disciples” — and “disciple” means essentially a student, and students inevitably are given “tests” by their teachers. And so, in today’s Gospel reading — halfway through the Gospel of Mark — Jesus springs a pop quiz on his disciples, his students.

Jesus asked his disciples: Who do people say that I am? After hearing their replies as to a broad gamut of public opinion about his self, Jesus then asks them: Who do you say that I am? Both questions are important — both for the apostles and for each one of us today. They are defining questions — if we are to understand and to embrace our call to be — in the words of Pope Francis — "missionary disciples."

Again, to be effective and credible missionaries we must be faithful and committed disciples. We must know who Jesus is. In asking his apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus is not looking for an opinion — rather he is looking for an affirmation of firm faith, an affirmation that Peter, speaking for the rest of the apostles, gives.

“Who do you say that I am?” is the basic question whose answer defines our relationship to the Church and to the person of Jesus Christ. To make Peter’s faith our own is what makes us Catholic. “You are the Christ” is the first creed of the Church — the other creeds grow from it — and it is through that creed which gives expression to the faith of Peter and the Apostles we can come to a true knowledge of who Christ is — a true knowledge that is not just knowing something about Jesus but is the knowledge of knowing Jesus. We can come to know Jesus because we believe what Peter believed — namely that Jesus is the Messiah of God.

Certainly, to be disciples we must know the Lord — but if we are also to be missionaries, we also must know the people to whom we are sent. And here the other question on Jesus’ quiz is also important: “Who do people say that I am?”

Peter and the apostles answered with an early Palestinian version of an opinion poll. What Peter affirmed of Jesus was born of faith; but the crowds merely opined. The missionary disciple today must be ready to give an answer for the hope that is his or hers — but he or she does so in a world that is often indifferent to faith because it thinks it already knows. But lest we talk past those to whom we announce Jesus Christ, and for us to engage the world into which we are sent, we must understand not only what people have to say about Jesus and his Gospel but why they say what they say.

But as we reflect on today's Gospel reading, we might ask why Jesus, after eliciting from the apostles a profession of faith, would tell them not to tell anyone about him. You would have thought that they would be wanting to shout out from the housetops that they had found the Messiah. And of course, one day they would. But Jesus first wanted the apostles to understand what his being the Christ meant not on their terms but on his terms.

Peter got the title right when he recognized Jesus as the Christ, but he got the meaning wrong — which is why Jesus told them then "not to tell anyone."

For the apostles then and for us now, the task of discipleship is accepting God’s terms and not insisting on our own. And here is where the cross comes in. To carry one's cross today often just means to endure some difficulty with patience. But in Jesus' time, carrying one's cross meant accepting a death sentence: to follow Jesus meant that life as you knew it was over.

So, to proclaim Jesus is the Christ of God requires more than just some short-lived enthusiasm. “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

Jesus is telling us that a faith without the cross is no faith at all; at least, it is not a faith that can save. Salvation will come through sacrifice, the sacrifice that awaits Jesus on Calvary. And for our part, self-denial and cross-bearing describes what it means to follow Jesus. Following Jesus — that is, to associate with a Christ who will be rejected — means taking on an identity and a way of living that poses a threat to the world's corrosive ideologies and idolatries.

These ideologies and idolatries create very turbulent waters for the Barque of Peter and those of us who travel on the ship which is the Church. Yet we should never give into a spirit of pessimism. If Christ is presented to people as he really is, they experience him as an answer that is convincing and they can accept his message, even when it is demanding and bears the mark of the Cross.

The road map towards a transformational future and the restoration of our joy lies in presenting Christ as he really is — for to be a Christian is not a burden but a gift, having encountered him is the best thing that has happened us and to share him with others by our gifts of our time, talent and treasure, even at the cost of our very selves, is a joy.

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