Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Homily Series for the Year of Faith
May 14, 2013
The Year of Faith is taking place after years of terrible scandal, especially the dual scandal of wolves in shepherds’ clothing abusing rather than loving those young people entrusted to their care and the failure of those in responsibility to do everything necessary as icons of the Good Shepherd to defend these lambs from those predators.
Today’s feast of St. Matthias gives us a particular window into one way each of us — and the whole Church — is supposed to respond to those scandals.
At the beginning of today’s reading, St. Peter describes the betrayal of Judas. Judas had been chosen by the Lord Jesus himself after Jesus pulled an all-nighter in prayer. He had been hand-selected by name. He was formed directly by Jesus in an intimate friendship for three years. He had been sent out by him to preach the Good News in his Name. He had received from him the power to cast out demons and to cure the sick. He had seen Jesus work countless miracles and in Jesus’ name he and the apostles had worked countless others.
Yet, despite all of this, he turned out to be a traitor. He who had followed the Lord up close for 1000 days, who had had his feet washed by him, who had seen him walk on water, raise people from the dead, and forgive sinners, betrayed him, valuing him less than 30 pieces of silver, and betraying him by faking an act of love and friendship.
Jesus didn’t choose Judas to betray him. He chose him to be like all the others. But Judas was always free, and he used his freedom to allow Satan to enter into him, and by his betrayal, ended up getting Jesus crucified and murdered.
We see that right from the beginning, right from the first twelve Jesus himself chose, one was a terrible traitor. This points to a fact we need to confront: sometimes God’s chosen ones betray him.
The early Church confronted this fact and with the power of the Holy Spirit saw how God wants to draw good evil out of the worst evil. If the scandal caused by Judas was all the members of the early Church had focused on, the Church would have been finished before it even started to grow. Instead, the Church recognized that you don’t judge something by those who don’t live it, but by those who do.
Instead of focusing on the one who betrayed, they focused on the mission Christ had entrusted to them.
And so Peter, commenting on the words of Psalm 109, “May another take his office,” declared to the group of 120 disciples, “It is necessary that one of the men who accompanied us the whole time the Lord Jesus came and went among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us, become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
They then turned to the Lord in prayer and asked him who knows every heart to indicate the one he had chosen to take the place Judas had once filled among the twelve. They entrusted themselves to his judgment and cast lots. And St. Matthias won the divine ballot and joined the eleven as apostles.
Back in 2006, in his beautiful catecheses on the Apostles, Benedict XVI said, “We know nothing else about [Matthias], except that he had been a witness to all Jesus’ earthly events, remaining faithful to him to the end. To the greatness of his fidelity was later added the divine call to take the place of Judas, almost compensating for his betrayal.”
He said that we draw from this an important lesson about how we’re likewise called to compensate for the scandalous betrayals that occur within the Church in every age.
“While there is no lack of unworthy and traitorous Christians in the Church,” Benedict said, “it is up to each of us to counterbalance the evil done by them with our clear witness to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.”
The response to infidelity has to be fidelity. While many allow scandals to weaken their faith, the Lord wants our response to allow the scandals to spur us on to deeper faith. Our faith — even and especially in difficult circumstances caused by the shame of scandal — is the principle way we make reparation for the failures of others.
Sometimes the greatest motivation we can have to live the life of faith comes precisely when we repent for the disfigurement of the Church through scandals.
I’d like to share two personal examples.
Twenty-five years ago when I was in college, one of the many priests who would celebrate daily Mass was irreverent toward Jesus in the Eucharist in a way that used to make me wince. He would slam the consecrated Host on to the paten, hold up the chalice as if he were merely going through the motions as quickly as he could, and wouldn’t give us even a nanosecond to kneel at the end of the Lamb of God to behold that very Lamb in his fingertips as we prayed for the healing grace to be made worthy to receive Him under our roof.
I’m convinced he never intended to be irreverent, but a general sloppiness had creeped into his ars celebrandi and the bad habits had just become so routine that he didn’t even notice the counter-gospel he was proclaiming by his body language.
At first I was scandalized and frankly angry as I would kneel in my pew during his Masses. I was still at this point still discerning whether God was in fact calling me to be a priest and the Lord used the whole circumstance to strengthen the priestly vocation he had in fact given me. “Lord, please give me a priestly vocation so that I can treat you as you deserve!,” I found myself praying over and over again. The example of unintended reverence spurred me to resolve always to be consciously devout in the celebration of the Mass when I would have the awesome experience of approaching the Lord’s holy altar myself.
Likewise, during what George Weigel called the “long Lent of 2002,” the year in which four decades of hidden scandals of the sexual abuse of minors all came to light at basically same time, when every day it seemed like it couldn’t get worse only to get worse on the morrow, I was filled, like so many Catholics, with shame and anger.
I was also suffering on account of the scandals. Parents at the health club where I would go to exercise would hide their children from me behind their legs as I entered. An SUV on streets of Boston once pulled over asking me for directions and as I approach to help, both the adult driver and passenger spat on my face. Riding on an elevator at a hospital going to visit a sick parishioner, a doctor entered, and as the doors closed and we began to ascend together, said, “I’ve never been on an elevator with a pedophile before.” Worst of all, I saw so many people scandalized and committing spiritual suicide, separating themselves off from Christ by cutting themselves off from the Sacraments and the Church Christ had founded.
It was during those tough days that I remembered the words I had once read in a book of meditations by St. Josemaria Escriva, that every crisis is a crisis of saints. So many times in Church history the Church has gouged herself with the self-inflicted wounds of scandal. But at every time the Church hit a low point, God raised up saints to bring the Church back to its real mission. It’s almost as if in the times of greatest darkness, Jesus called and helped people to radiate his light more brightly.
For years I had had an awareness that God calls “everyone” to become a saint and generally too this universal call to holiness seriously. But nothing ever spurred me to get serious about responding to the means the Lord gives us to unite our whole lives to him like the revelations of the scandals among priests.
I saw that in response to the various Judases whose names and photos were splattered on front pages across the country, the Lord was going to be calling new Saint Matthiases and giving the graces necessary to live up to that vocation. So that’s when I joined a priestly society dedicated to helping diocesan priests become holy in the midst of their ordinary duties.
I’ve seen the face of St. Matthias in many of the priestly vocations the Lord has called over the last decade. When I was responding to my priestly vocation in the 80s and 90s, many of my peers, upon being told I thought the Lord was calling me to be a priest, would tease me as if I were gay and not interested in marriage. For the seminarians who have come after the scandals, they’ve been teased in a far worse way. But it hasn’t deterred them. Many of them have told me that one of the things that led to their discerning their priestly vocation — or strengthening them in following that call — was that they knew the Church deserved better, and was better, than how she was being portrayed as a result of the scandals. They were willing to say, as Isaiah before them, “Here I am, Lord. Send me!”
Each in our own way is called to be a St. Matthias. In response to the defects of those in the Church, including but not limited to those in positions of leadership, we can either remain critical and have it weaken our faith, or begin the process of reparation and self-criticism and have it strengthen our faith. When others fail in giving witness to Christ by their behavior, when they fail to love others as Christ has loved us first, when they fail to bear fruit that will last, our vocation is not to wag the finger, but to pick up the torch and towel and give the witness of faith and Christ-like love that Christ and the Church deserve.
This Year of Faith is a chance for all of us to become St. Matthiases. In a sense, the Lord has chosen all of us, not by lot, but by eternal design. These present crises are the spur for us to resolve to respond to his assistance to become the saints he died and rose and sent the Holy Spirit for us to bring about.