Sunday, February 3, 2019

Let's make the Catholic Church Evangelical again

Sports Stadium or Evangelical Megachurch?  You decide!

Homily: 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C
As you all know, I spent the middle two weeks of January in Central America (El Salvador and Guatemala, to be exact).  I was on a pilgrimage with other priests, deacons, and religious to learn about the Central American martyrs.  If you heard my homily last week, you’ll know that it was a much more sober experience than I expected from the outset, as I learned about the horrible violence that plagued those countries in the ‘70s and ‘80s.  I also learned more about how the Catholic Church has been a fixture in these places throughout those rough times.  One of my most consoling moments was concelebrating Mass in the parish church in Santiago, Atitlan, in Guatemala, which is the oldest parish still operating in Central America.  It dates to 1547!  And it is the place where Blessed Stanley Rother, an Oklahoma priest who worked in Guatemala, stood with the poor who were being oppressed: a stand which, ultimately, cost him his life.
There was a moment of disturbing contrast, however.  On one of the days, when we were traveling by mini-bus from El Salvador to Guatemala, we drove by what we, at first, thought was a sports arena.  Then, we read the sign by the road: “Casa de Dios”... “House of God”... an Evangelical Christian mega-church.  At first, we didn’t believe that we read the right sign, but we had to double back down the same road and, when we did, it was confirmed: this huge building—which looked like it could host Super Bowl 54—was an Evangelical mega-church.
It was no surprise to me that Evangelicals have been in traditionally Catholic Central America.  They’ve been there for some time.  The fact that they are such a large presence as to build such an incredibly large building was a bit of a surprise, however.  That building was a statement that Evangelical Christianity has taken a foothold in Guatemala.  Knowing what I know about religious attitudes of Guatemalans, I safely assumed that the Evangelicals are not winning-over the unaffiliated; rather, they’re winning over Catholics.  After talking with a couple of people, it seems as if it is the same situation that is happening all over Central America: that Evangelicals are going throughout these countries specifically targeting Catholics and seeking to lure them away from the practice of the Roman Catholic religion.  The fact that they are finding success is, to me, a big problem.
But this is just a microcosm of what has been happening around the world and even here in our own community.  How many of us here have watched as our children, grandchildren, godchildren, brothers and sisters have slipped away from the Catholic Church: either to stop practicing the Catholic faith altogether or who have been lured to an “Evangelical” community?  A good number of us, I’m sure.  Oh, and I do mean “lured,” by the way.  In many parts of the world, Evangelicals are on a mission to “convert” Catholics because they believe that what we preach is a false religion.  Let us not be deceived, however, into thinking that this is okay, because they’re still “Christians”.  When Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the power of Satan, he said to them, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.”  My brothers and sisters, some Protestants and Evangelicals are striving to do just that: to divide God’s house; and, in many ways, we are letting it happen.
I think that, as the Catholic Church, we’ve allowed ourselves to become complacent.  We’ve allowed ourselves to think, “The world’s been evangelized, so I can sit back, relax and just hang out here in the Church until Christ comes back and everything should be fine.”  We’ve forgotten that the very nature of the Church is to be evangelical.  Thus, one of the things that is luring people away from the Catholic Church is that these other communities are doing what the Catholic Church has been failing to do: they are evangelizing!  So, where are our evangelists?  I’m looking at them!  Yes, I’m looking at all of you (and, if I had a mirror, at myself).  I hope that this does not come as a shock to any of you, but each of us here, because of our baptism, are called to be evangelists.
Our first reading today from the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that we are all called to proclaim God’s words to his people.  Sure, the words we heard were God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah at a specific place and time.  Nonetheless, they have been preserved up to this day because they are inspired by God and helpful in instructing us in following our own calls today.  And so, what does God say?  “Try to be holy and just show up to Mass and you’ll be fine”?  No!  He says, “Gird up your loins; stand up and tell them what I command you”!
What God is saying to us, then, is that it is not enough for us to give a minimal effort at holiness and to fulfill the basic requirements, like showing up on Sundays.  What God is saying to us, rather, is that we must also speak his words to others, especially those closest to us, challenging them in positive ways to seek God more deeply and then to support them as they do.
Perhaps, however, we are worried that we’ll push our loved ones away or that they will turn against us.  To that, the readings for today also have an answer.  God promised Jeremiah (and, therefore, he promised us) that he “would not leave us crushed before them,” but rather that he “would make us a fortified city….”
Jesus himself did not fear the reproaches of his family or his neighbors in Nazareth.  As we heard today in the Gospel reading, Jesus preached the truth to them and they boiled over with rage against him.  God did not leave him to their rage, however.  Rather, when he was about to be thrown over the edge of the cliff, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went away.”
Thus, we need not fear the reproaches of our families or neighbors.  If our words inspire them to rage, then so be it.  God will not leave us to be “crushed before them.”  Hopefully, however, and if we speak the truth to them with love (as Saint Paul admonishes us to do today), our words will inspire in them a fervor to seek Christ where he may most fully be found: here in this church and in the Eucharist.
If we still have fear, however, then it probably means that we ourselves need to be ignited with fervor for the faith.  If so, don’t worry, because that’s where we come in: part of our duty as parish leadership is to provide you with what you need to be ignited with fervor for the faith.  I hope that you will pay close attention to the bulletin and announcements and respond to the opportunities that we are preparing for you.  With that fervor ignited (or stoked, if it was already ignited), our tasks then are the following: fervent celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday, consistent daily prayer and reading of the Scriptures, adoration of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament as often as possible, faith sharing in small groups, and frequent confession.  Close attention to these tasks will stoke our fervor for the faith into a burning fire.  Witness (telling others about this fire burning in us), invitation (inviting them to experience the same), and service (fervor expressed in the works of mercy), then, become the acts that will ignite that same fervor in others.
My brothers and sisters, we’ve procrastinated long enough.  Today is the day to act.  Let us respond to the Holy Father’s call and reclaim for our Church the name which has always been ours: Evangelical.  And let us be that shining light for Christ that leads our brothers and sisters—our families and our neighbors—to that communion with God that their hearts so deeply desire: the communion that we share here at this table.
Given at Saint Mary’s Cathedral: Lafayette, IN – February 3rd, 2019

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