Friday, February 24, 2017
Archbishop Thomas Wenski - The Archdiocese of Miami
Homily by Archbishop Thomas Wenski at Mass with seminarians and alumni at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary. Friday, Feb. 24, 2017.
Many of our alumni will remember Father Manny Fidalgo – he taught at both seminaries. Once at St. John Vianney, when he was the celebrant of the Mass, this same gospel we’ve just heard was read. After reading the gospel, he looked out at the seminarians and said: Since this hasn’t anything to do with us, let’s just stand up for the Creed.
Jesus’ words on marriage are hard sayings; and, so were his words on the Eucharist, “the bread I shall give is my flesh”. Given the ongoing debate – some would just say, confusion – over the content and context of Amoris Laetitia, -especially chapter 8 – Christ’s teachings on marriage and Eucharist remain “hard sayings”, don’t they?
But, following Fr. Fidalgo’s lead, I’m not going to get into the current debates about Amoris Laetitia. But, let me just say, Amoris Laetitia still needs to be unpacked – to be fully understood and appreciated; but, since Pope Francis himself said that it does not change Church teachings on Marriage, it should not be interpreted as if it does. Apostolic Exhortations do not change doctrine. Canon Law also is not changed by the Exhortation. For example, Pope Francis mentions that “…neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules… What is possible is simply a renewed encouragement to undertake a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases… Priests have the duty to “accompany (the divorced and remarried) in helping them to understand their situation according to the teaching of the Church and the guidelines of the bishop.”
Thus, the best way to understand this document is to see it in continuity with previous Church documents on the same topic. To grasp what Amoris Laetitia proposes, read the text – and read the text in context and don’t just read commentary.
Back to tonight’s gospel reading – even though we are not planning on being married, the reading does give us the opportunity to ask ourselves: what do we say to people and how do we say it when we are obliged to preach on some of these “hard sayings” of the gospel? Pope Francis reminds us in Amoris Laetitia, moral laws are not stones to be thrown at a person’s life.
As Ministers of God’s Word, we are to preach – as they say in Haitian Creole “san wete, san mete” – without subtracting from or adding anything to God’s Word. The Christ that is the answer to the longings of the human heart – the Christ that is found in the gospels – is much different from the image of Christ that prevails in our culture today. The “popular” image of Jesus today is of a Jesus who demands nothing, who never scolds, who accepts everyone and everything – a Jesus who no longer does anything but affirm us.
Pope Benedict, when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote: “The Jesus that makes everything okay for everybody is a phantom, a dream, and not a real figure.” The Jesus we meet in the Gospel – who is the same yesterday, today and forever – is demanding and bold. And, therefore, he is not always convenient for us in his boldness and in his demands. And, the Church, if she is to be the effective presence of Christ in the world today, cannot be ashamed or afraid of the very real demands of discipleship that Jesus boldly makes on those who would be his followers. Remember John the Baptist lost his head for defending the truth about marriage.
Jesus’ words in today’s gospel should not be seen as merely “quaint and outdated”. If marriage is what Jesus says it is, then we can understand why failed marriages bring such pain to couples, their families and their communities. Jesus’ special concern for children should remind us that they are often victimized when their parents’ divorce. Individualism, narcissism, materialism, consumerism – a whole bunch of isms – work against the faith in our contemporary world. And the Church –mercifully and pastorally - proposes the Joy of Love in contrast to our culture’s tendencies to treat commitment and love as conditional.
Preaching is also a form of pastoral care. In preaching, we wield the sword of the Word. It is a double-edged sword, the Letter to Hebrews tells us. It’s supposed to be able to penetrate to the heart – because the purpose of preaching is to bring about a “change of heart”. On the first Pentecost the people responded to Peter’s preaching as we read in the Acts of the Apostles: “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart”– “cut to the heart” but not scarred. Unfortunately – and I know this from the letters I get -a few preachers often do scar people – whether intentionally or unintentionally.
And, if you live by the sword, you can die by the sword. Too often those who wield the Bible as a weapon to point out another person’s flaws often convict themselves. As St. Paul writes in Romans 2: 21-22: “…you who teach another, are you failing to teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You who detest idols, do you rob temples? Remember, when you point an accusatory finger at someone, there are three others pointed back at you.
They say that politics is a “contact sport”. Today in America, political discourse is filled with shrill polemics that generate much heat but little light. Such divisive partisanship perhaps is the way of the world; but it cannot be the way of the Church, for the way of the Church must be, as St. Paul told the contentious Corinthians, a “more excellent way,” the way of love (cf. 1 Cor 12:31-13:13). Yet, too often we see how those who insist on “their own views” can easily become consumed with a bitter zeal.
You can see this bitter zeal in those who point out peoples' faults not so much to help them but to humiliate them, to put them down.
Pope St. Pius X, who served at the beginning of the 20th century, began his pontificate under the motto of “Restoring all things to Christ.” One can draw many parallels between his inaugural encyclical, E Supremi, and Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). Both were concerned with the Gospel not being presented as an oppressive lists of “don’ts” but rather as it truly is: good news, a wonderful, joyful invitation to mankind to find in Jesus Christ the authentic vision of life and the path to true freedom.
Our religion does have its share of rules and regulations, and some are less important than others. Every society has its rules — that's the only way you can have people live and work together. But the rules and regulations are means to an end — rather than the end itself. When we confuse "ends" and "means" we can fall into the error of the Pharisees and Scribes — we can fall into legalism, and we can fall into the type of religious hypocrisy that Jesus criticized in very strong terms. Again, the rules and regulations of our religion are means to an end. They are means to lead us to friendship with Jesus; they are not supposed to become a substitute for that relationship with Jesus.
And so, St. Pius X wrote: “that Christ may be formed in all, be it remembered that no means is more efficacious than charity.” He then added: “…it is vain to hope to attract souls to God by a bitter zeal. On the contrary, harm is done more often than good by taunting men harshly with their faults, and reproving their vices with asperity.” No true reform or revitalization of Church life has ever been the fruit of a bitter zeal.