Finding in a Parish Pure Worship and the Fullness of Redemption, 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C), June 23, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C
First Anniversary of the Dedication of St. Bernadette’s Parish
June 23, 2013
Zech 12:10-11, 13:1; Ps 63; Gal 3:26-29; Lk 9:18-24

 

A year ago today, at 12:01 am, our parish was born, and so today we celebrate the Mass of the Dedication of a Church on its anniversary, which the Church considers the rank of a Solemnity in any given parish, the highest level of Church celebration. It is a time for all members of a parish to remember that a Church is not a meeting hall where a bunch of like-minded people assemble, it’s not a neighborhood social club where the principle purpose is to hang out with friends, it’s not a debating society where a group of independently-minded people come together to discuss the opinions about God and other topics, it’s not a convenient gas station where we go simply to get spiritually pumped up. It’s a home where we encounter God and he encounters us, not as a bunch of individuals, but as a family of his beloved sons and daughters where his children treat others as beloved siblings. It’s here in a parish where God comes to dwell with us, to abide within us, and where he renews us in his love as his image and likeness. It’s from here that he wishes to transform us, just as he changed the early Church on Pentecost, so that we might burst through the doors and go out with him to renew and redeem the world for, with and in Christ.

The prayers of the Dedication of a Church teach us what we celebrate and what a parish is

Priests have always commented that the prayers for the Mass of the Dedication of a Church are among the richest and most beautiful that exist for any Mass. I’d like to begin our prayerful consideration of this feast with them, because they guide our minds and our hearts not only to what we celebrate today but what a parish is.

In the Preface for today’s Mass we will pray, “For in this visible house that you have let us build and where you never cease to show favor to the family on pilgrimage to you in this place, you wonderfully manifest and accomplish the mystery of your communion with us. Here you build up for yourself the temple that we are and cause your Church, spread throughout the world, to grow ever more and more as the Lord’s own Body, till she reaches her fullness in the vision of peace, the heavenly city of Jerusalem.”

That’s what God does here. The prayer specifies four things that he does for us in the Church His Son founded:

  • He brings us into communion with him and each other.
  • He forms us, not just individually but together, into his temple, the place where he is welcomed, loved and adored.
  • He helps us more and more into the mystical body of his Son, a one-flesh union that comes about through Christ’s spousal love for us as his Bride, and
  • He seeks to bring us to fulfillment at the end of our family pilgrimage in the heavenly Jerusalem.

We celebrate all of this today, full of gratitude for the Lord’s calling us to share in this reality. The anniversary of a dedication, however, is not meant principally to look backward with thanksgiving to the day a parish was started. It’s geared to the present and the future. It’s supposed to a day of re-dedication, of a wholehearted, prayerful, joyful recommitment to what God wants and intends to do in us at this parish.

We asked him for this grace at the beginning of the Mass in the Opening Collect when we prayed, “O God, who year by year renew for us the day when this your holy temple was consecrated, hear the prayers of your people …” and then we ask for two things specifically: “Grant that in this place for you there may always be pure worship and for us, fullness of redemption.”

Pure Worship

The anniversary of a parish is meant to be a time in which we re-consecrate ourselves to giving God not just any-old worship, but pure worship, worship given to him for no selfish purpose but solely because we want to praise and adore him for who He is.

In the Offertory Prayer we specify that pure worship when we beg him to make of us a sacrificial offering always acceptable to him. It’s the worship not of our lips but of our entire existence, by which we seek to give him praise and glory.

It’s here where, with the words of the Responsorial Psalm today from the 12th Sunday of Ordinary Time, we seek God, our soul thirst for him like a dry, thirsty land without water, where our flesh pines for him, where we gaze upon him in the sanctuary to see his power and glory, where our lips glorify him and exultantly praise him, our hands are lifted up toward him, we call upon his name, we cling to him, we bless him and he satisfies our soul with the riches of a banquet, the banquet of the Body and Blood of his dearly beloved Son.

Today we ask God on this great solemnity to fill us with all we need to offer him pure worship he’s made us to give him, so that we might in fact thirst for him and be filled with him not just here in this sanctuary but at home, work, school and throughout the world he created and pronounced good.

The Fullness of Redemption

The second thing the Opening Collect says that the feast of the dedication of a Church also a time in which we ask him to give us not something small, like a year of health, peace and prosperity, but the “fullness of redemption,” everything that Jesus won for us by his life, passion, death and resurrection.

We ask God, whom through the Prophet Zechariah in today’s first reading said, “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and petition,” to pour out on the house of Bernadette and the inhabitants of Fall River the Holy Spirit to bring us to the plenitude of salvation.

We received a down payment, a partial installment of redemption, on the day of our baptism. We enter more deeply into salvation each time we enter into God through the Sacraments. But we pray for the fullness of redemption. The parish is meant to help us to receive that great gift and respond to it.

Today’s readings, however, teach us that that gift doesn’t come with whipped cream and a cherry on top. The Prophet Zechariah foretells how the fullness of redemption would be brought about and Jesus in the Gospel makes that prophecy concrete.

God through Zechariah tells us that he will pour on the spirit of grace and petition, but then immediately adds, “And they shall look on him whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him as one mourns for an only son and they shall grieve over him as one grieves over a first born.” This, he goes to say, is the means by which the house of David and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem will have opened for them a “fountain to purify from sin and impurity.”

The fullness of redemption comes, first, from looking on him whom we have pierced, from looking at Christ on the Cross.

But it’s not enough for us just to look at him. We need to mourn for him just like parents mourn the death of an only child or the death of their first-born. It’s tough enough any time a parent has to bury a child, but when a parent loses an only child or in ancient societies the heir, the grieving is even more intense, as we saw with the widow of Nain two weeks ago. That’s the type of grieving we’re supposed to have for Christ, whom we have pierced and crucified by our sins.

It’s a mourning that’s not supposed to be fundamentally-inward looking and self-deprecating, focused on the shame we have for having repeatedly chosen Barabbas in disguise over Christ; rather, it’s a torrent of tears that should come principally from recognizing just how much God really loves us to go through so much to save us.

We can’t appreciate salvation unless we know that and how much we need to be saved.

We can’t appreciate the gift of God’s mercy unless we first recognize our misery.

It’s through this true appreciation of the greatness of his merciful love that we are opened to the fountain, flowing from his pierced side, that purifies us from sin and impurity.

Confessing Jesus as the True Messiah

That truth is essential to understand Jesus’ reaction to Peter’s confession in today’s Gospel.

Jesus takes his poll about who people say he is. People say John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the other prophets — all great men, truly men of God. But it’s not enough for Jesus to ask what other people say about him. He asks Peter and the apostles — just like he asks us today — who do you say that I am? Peter, moved by the grace of God the Father, confesses him to be the Messiah, the long-awaited anointed one of the Jews, come to set them free. In St. Matthew’s eyewitness account, he also confesses Jesus to be something far greater than the Messiah: God’s very son. The Church, every Catholic parish, likewise exists to make this confession of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, Lord and Savior.

But as soon as Peter had finished, Jesus talked about what type of Messiah he would be. The Jews had thought the Messiah would be a political liberator, someone who would drive out foreign powers and restore the earthly reign of the House of David. The apostles on several occasions were jockeying for choice seats among the cabinet of his administration. But Jesus immediately said he would be another type of Messiah, one that would suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priest and the scribes, be killed and then be raised on the third day. That was the type of Messiah he would be, the type of Messiah who would do all of this to free us from our sins.

When we today confess here in this house of God Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God, we’re not confessing a soft, teddy-bear type of Christ whose love means that he doesn’t care the sins we’re involved in, who doesn’t care whether we worship money, or hold grudges, or gossip, or are involved in sinful situations, or don’t come to Mass or confession. We’re proclaiming and beholding a Pierced Messiah, who loved us so much that he was wounded for our transgressions and struck down for our sins, to set us free from the greatest enemy of all.

But it’s not even enough to mourn and grieve after we behold Christ pierced for us.

Jesus tells us in the Gospel, that just as he had to suffer greatly, so any of us who wishes to come after him, any of us who wishes to be his disciple, any of us who wishes to be a member of his spiritually Messianic administration and receive the fullness of redemption, “must deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow” him. We must ourselves be pierced. We must ourselves die through denying ourselves. We must ourselves pick up our crosses and follow Christ on the path of the pilgrimage of redemption, rather than seeking to live what the world calls “the good life” and going about as we please.

Jesus punctuates those challenging words by saying, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” The Church exists, a Catholic parish exists, to help us lose our life for Christ so that we may be saved, so that we may experience the fullness of redemption for which we pray. I want to stress that: the purpose of a parish is to help us lose our life for Christ, because unless we lose our life for Christ we will not be saved.

The cost of discipleship

We have to admit, candidly, that losing our life for Christ’s sake isn’t fun. Denying ourselves, mastering our appetites and dying to our egos in order to live by faith are not easy. Picking up our cross each day and following the real Jesus Christ — who is always a sign of contradiction and often challenges us to do some very hard things we would prefer not to do — is not a popular path. But it is the Church’s path. It is supposed to be every Catholic parish’s path. As your pastor I’ll do everything I can to make sure it’s your path and mine.

But it’s important to note that many Catholic faithful and even some Catholic priests don’t look at things this way. They don’t really believe in the essence of the Gospel, which always involves a cost.

The essence of the Good News is like when a doctor comes in to see us and says, “I’ve got bad news and good news. The bad news is that you have cancer and we’re going to have to operate. The good news is that we can get it, you’ll survive, and will have a full recovery.”

Certain Catholics and Catholic priests prefer a watered-down version of the Gospel in which a malpracticing doctor doesn’t give the diagnosis that he knows a patient really doesn’t want to hear, and instead allows the patient to believe everything’s fine; then the patient ends up worse and dies.

They prefer to preach and live a softer, gentler, version of the faith that pleases but doesn’t save, because it doesn’t call people to a cruciform life, to chop off their hands or pluck out their eyes if it’s leading to their spiritual death, as Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. Parishes like this are kind of like the Church in ancient Philippi, where St. Paul said they behave as “enemies of the Cross of Christ,” whose god is their belly and whose glory is their shame. They feature a type of faith that rather than converting the spirit of the age adopts it. Rather than helping people focus on the truths that will lead to eternity, it leads them to “get with the times.”

In parishes like the ones I’m describing, if the people don’t want to hear about the moral imperative to welcome and love immigrants and strangers as if they were Christ himself, nothing is said. If parishioners, especially the wealthy ones, don’t want to hear anything about sexual morality or marriage, the pulpit remains mute. If they don’t want to be afflicted by any message about sin and the need regular recourse to the Sacrament of Confession, that’s avoided. If they want to have a parish just for those of Irish descent, or French, or Portuguese, or Italian, that’s accommodated, too, just as it was a century ago, despite the fact that St. Paul emphatically teaches today in his Letter to the Galatians that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, that what unites us as baptized Catholics is so much greater than ethnic background.

Parishes like those I’m describing are like restaurants catering to the desires of the customers, rather than forming their appetites to hunger and thirst for holiness.

In general, in parishes like this are often “successful” by worldly sociological indicators. Most people seem content, and the priests seem content, and there’s little conflict. The people are treated as if they’re sinless saints and aren’t complaining, and the priests are viewed as great shepherds, whose pastoral strategy must be validated by God since Mass attendance and collections are holding steady or even growing. In a consumerist model, there are a lot of happy customers, and it’s tempting to believe that a popular parish like this must be doing things right and God must be blessing it. On the other hand, if a parish has decreased attendance, that it must be doing something wrong and God must be cursing it. Of course, if a parish is losing parishioners, it very well might be doing something wrong. But sometimes it may lose parishioners for doing something right.

Jesus’ “failure” and ours

If we look at the Supreme Pastor, the one who came to earth to found the Church and continues to guide the Church from above as the Eternal High Priest, we see that Jesus seemed to be a failure as a parish community organizer. When he preached in Capernaum about our needing to gnaw on his flesh and drink his blood, most of his disciples abandoned him, calling his teaching hard and unendurable. No matter how many people he cured of leprosy, blindness, and paralysis, no matter how many demons he exorcised, no matter how many multitudes he fed, no matter how many people he raised from the dead, no matter how many powerful homilies he preached with an authority unlike any of the scribes and Pharisees, he still ended up betrayed by a friend, abandoned by the apostles, scourged, mocked, spat upon, stripped naked, and ignominiously crucified. When he was offering Mass upon the Cross, there were only a few people in the congregation of the faithful, including his mother. Judged by human standards, he was an abject failure. But we know that he wasn’t! He came to give witness to the truth, but some didn’t want the truth. He gave as Light but many preferred darkness. The fact that he lost so many of his flock wasn’t a sign of his failure, but theirs. They failed to respond with faith to all he was doing. And this same Jesus told us not to admire him, but to follow him. To deny ourselves, pick up our cross and retrace his steps  To lose our lives for his sake so as to save them.

When a parish does this, priests and parishioners shouldn’t expect success or popularity, because Jesus never promised those things. People who don’t want to change, who don’t want to be challenged, who don’t want the fullness of the Gospel but chicken soup for the Christian soul, who don’t want to live by faith but who want to do it their way and have churches assuage rather than prod their guilty consciences, may go elsewhere where the expectations and commitment are much lower and where accommodating them rather than converting them is the modus operandi. The Jews who queried God in the psalms so many times about why the impious were prospering and the faithful seemed to suffer needed to learn what many of us Christians still need to learn, that worldly institutional or personal success doesn’t necessarily correspond to pleasing God.

We see these same lessons about the Church in the lives of the saints and martyrs

SS. Peter and Paul, whose feast day we’ll celebrate on Saturday, were faithful to Christ and many came to the Gospel through their labors, but they still ended up crucified and beheaded. According to St. Clement, the fourth pope, they were betrayed by some of Judaizing Christians in Rome to whom St. Paul wrote his letter and met at the end of the Acts of the Apostles, those who thought that in order to be a good Christian, you first needed to be a good Jew, obey the entire Mosaic law, including the circumcising of adult men and observing all of the Jewish dietary laws. SS. Peter and Paul preached the real Gospel and those who were supposedly believers betrayed them after the fire of Rome and got them killed. But it was through their blood, through their losing their life for Christ’s sake, their following him all the way along the way of the Cross, that the Church grew. They seemed to be failures in life, murdered under Nero as scapegoats for the fire he had set, but they were in fact great heroes and builders by their faithful witness.

Likewise, yesterday we celebrated the feast of St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, tremendously lively, witty, brilliant men — a layman and a bishop respectively — but when they refused to take false oaths demanded by King Henry VIII, oaths that most Catholic clergy and faithful readily took to save their lives in this world, they were both killed. After their martyrdom, all but the two faithful bishops in the country — who had sworn false oaths proclaiming Henry, not God through the Pope, to be the supreme ruler of the Church on earth and swearing that his second adulterous union to his mistress Anne Boleyn to be his true marriage, rather than his sacramental bond to Catherine of Aragon — were back in Church celebrating the Mass. The vast majority of priests who had saved their lives in this world by calling God as their witness to Henry’s being supreme ruler and validly married to Anne, were arrayed in vestments. And most English Catholics were in the pews singing hymns, while Thomas and John were both dead. But who were the truly successful ones? The ones who betrayed God and lived in this world to tell about it, or the two who were faithful and gave their lives for Him who had first given His life for them?

God’s ways are not man’s ways. The question for any parish is whether it’s helping people to conform their ways to God’s ways or trying to get the Church to conform God’s ways to their ways. A truly successful parish will be measured not by its collection or Mass attendance but its fidelity, by how successful it is in bringing people to pure worship, to the fullness of redemption, to true and complete communion with God, to the heavenly city of Jerusalem. As we learn on Calvary, true success is not measured with earthly metrics, but divine.

Our Prayer Today

Today we behold the One whom we have pierced and who we and so many continue to pierce through our sins. Grieving for what our sins have done, we open ourselves to the fountain of healing purification. We reiterate how much our soul thirsts for him and the mercy that flows from his pierced side. We confess him with St. Peter, with Pope Francis his successor and with Catholics across the world as the Messiah and Son of God, as our Savior and Redeemer. We thank him for the graces he’s given us during the last year here at this parish and beg him for the grace to rededicate ourselves to him and to his service, as one family of Irish, French, Portuguese and so many others ancestries made one through baptism into Christ. And we ask him in this Year of Faith to grant us an increase in faith so that we may have the courage to do exactly what he says today, to lose our lives for him so that we may be saved by denying ourselves and affirming him, laying down our old ways of life and picking up our daily Cross, and by ceasing to try to call the shots and learning to follow him up close all the way home to heaven. We rededicate ourselves, as individuals and as a parish family, to this vocation today, and we ask our beautiful celestial patron, St. Bernadette Soubirous, to pray for us that we may come through this parish to the heavenly temple that every parish Church in some way is meant to evoke.