Turning from idols to Christ, the Bread of Life (August 20th, 2018)

If we are attentive to the readings, to the choice of readings over the past few weeks and the coming weeks, we may have noticed a theme. It is most noticeable in the responsorial psalm – you’ll remember that last Sunday we sang the same psalm that we had today: “taste and see the goodness of the Lord”. And we’ll sing it one more time next Sunday.

Additionally, we’ve been walking through the Gospel of John, with the umph of the message really being evident in today’s Gospel and next Sunday’s Gospel. And what’s the punchline? It is Christ giving His Body and Blood and food.

This is probably one of the most controversial teachings of our faith, right after the mercy of God. And even at the time it was offered it elicited skepticism in response. ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ And Jesus doesn’t stop and say that it is an allegory, or a metaphor, or some rhetorical device. He says, ‘no, I’m telling you exactly what I mean’. He repeats it again and again – a total of five times in just seven verses.

In next Sunday’s Gospel in the continuation of this narrative, people will get upset and leave because this truth is too hard for them to accept. Jesus doesn’t respond by changing His teaching, but instead turns to the Apostles – almost sadly – and asks them ‘will you also go?’. Peter in return answers with that simply statement of faith ‘To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life’.

When we read this particular passage, when we read about the feeding of the five thousand, about the manna from heaven in the Old Testament, and we sing the responsorial psalm ‘taste and see the goodness of the Lord’, it’s all focusing us towards receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s what we do here at Mass!

In the Catechism, it speaks of the Eucharist as the ‘source and summit of our faith’. Everything we do centers around receiving Christ, the whole point of our entire faith is an encounter with Christ and the best way to do that is reception of the Eucharist.

Baptism joins us to the Body of Christ and enables us to join in the participation in the Mass. We go to Confession so that we can offer our sins and receive forgiveness in order to receive the Eucharist worthily. We celebrate Mass so that we can offer Christ’s sacrifice to the Father and so that we can receive the Eucharist.1 We’re married so that we can support each other and raise our children in this faith. We’re ordained so that we can celebrate and make present the Eucharist. Even at the hour of death, when we are anointed, the Church calls for (whenever possible) the reception of the Eucharist. All of our sacraments and all of faith revolves around the Eucharist.

There is a temptation that we face, from time to time, in all of our lives – both individually and corporately: to put something other than the Eucharist at the center of our faith. Good thing, most often, but things other than Christ. Sometimes its social work, outreach to feed the poor, offering resources, and help to those in need. Sometimes it is in standing for changes in the culture – abolishing abortion and injustices that we see against the poor, immigrants, the marginalized. We tell ourselves that by participating in these movements, we have checked off the box of fulfilling our faith.

We’re called to do all these things and more – they are good and necessary works, part of our faith. But they will become idols if they take the place of Christ as our center. And the best encounter with Christ, the one that He gave us, is here at the altar.

In recent weeks, we have seen the devastating results of making anything an idol. We’ve seen in the news the stories of the former cardinal who abused his power terribly, particularly with seminarians. And just this week we had the report from Pennsylvania of a grand jury – over one thousand pages long, after two years of investigation – that details the abuse by priests and apparently covered up by bishops of at least 1000 victims, over a span of about 40 years.

This is what happens when Christ is not at the center.

I imagine that those clergy – especially those who covered it up – told themselves ‘the reputation of the Church is important and we need to protect that’. And I suppose there’s truth in that, but they made it an idol by not looking to the protection of the Body of Christ who was wounded, to those members – and maybe future members! – who were victimized.

I can’t imagine what the priest who perpetrated these crimes were thinking, but it’s clear that it was not the Eucharist that was at the center of their lives. Perhaps the idol of power, though God knows what else.

What do we do with idols? We smash them to pieces! We see this in the Old Testament especially. And we are faced with this terrible, terrible truth: that there are idols within our own Church and that those at the highest level – our clergy – bishops and priests have failed us. They have perpetrated these crimes or have been complicit, even if simply through inaction.

Where do we go from here, what do we do? We’re just regular people sitting in a pew, and yet, here we are. We can’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. We also don’t have the luxury of saying ‘that’s the East coast, not here’. If nothing else, this one investigation will surely spur many others elsewhere. But even if there are not more, we are all one Body. We don’t get to pretend that members of our Christian family are not part of us and vice versa.

So, what do we do? Foremost, we do what we’re doing right here. We celebrate the sacraments, we celebrate the Mass. There will still be Masses offered in our church, there will still be confessions offered here. We continue to have the opportunity to have an encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. Our very first response should be to turn to the One who is not an idol, to turn to Christ.

The second one, is to present Christ to the world. There are a number of ways we will have to do that. The very first one is accepting responsibility for the sins of the Church. And I want to make a really clear distinct between accepting responsibility and taking on guilt. I have faith that none of us here in any way has participated in these crimes, none of us here has knowingly contributed to these awful violations or abuses of trust.

But as Catholics, as members of the Body of Christ, of whom there are members who have committed these crimes, we have to take responsibility. We have to say ‘I am going to own the responsibility of helping to clean this up, of helping to address those who are victimized, of in some way fasting & praying to make reparation, and if there are victims – whether I encounter them or simply know of them – I will support them in whatever way I can.’

This is our call, this is what we have to do in order to turn our Church back to Christ. We can not ignore what is going on or pretend that it hasn’t happened.

There is a temptation that I want to mention, that I have felt in my heart and seen in conversations, especially online. It is the temptation towards defensiveness. Perhaps defensively looking at the report and say ‘it only happened in the 70s & 80s – most of the cases are long distant!’. And that may be true…. and yet it happened. Perhaps defensively saying ‘we’ve put all these structures in place: anyone who volunteers has to go through a background check and complete our Safe Environment program – we’ve improved so much!’. And that maybe true….and yet it happened.

To present Christ to the world, we must do what Christ did. Even as those who have not necessarily participated in these sins, by accepting responsibility we must accept that we may be treated badly. If Christ could hang on the cross for our sins, perhaps we need to endure some abuse.

I don’t mean to suggest that put ourselves out there to ask for it. But it may come to pass that someone will come to you and vilify you for being Catholic. They be angry at you, they might curse at you, they might spit at you. We don’t to seek that out, but

We may need to allow people to express themselves, responding simply ‘I am sorry – I am sorry that my Church did this to you.’

Even as we ourselves are scandalized, wounded, angry, and sorrowful, we also have to accept the responsibility that we have to present Christ to the world – to help healing begin.

What can we do right now? Again, what we’re doing every Sunday: come to Mass. Now is not the time to separate yourself from Christ. Now is not the time to say ‘I give up’: we don’t have that option! We need Christ, now more than ever. We need to receive the Eucharist, and we need to go to confession, often, admitting ‘I am a sinner’ in our own ways. We need to be purified and strengthened in order to effectively present Christ, Who is loving, Who is merciful, Who took responsibility for the sins of others. This is the very first and most important thing that we can do.

We can also make reparation in our own ways. We can not heal others – that is God’s work alone. We can not fix the crimes that were committed – that is the work of the authorities. But we can offer prayer and make reparation. We can offer sacrifices, we can give up meals, we can offer our devotions and prayers for the healing of victims, for justice for perpetrators, for change & healing in our Church.

Perhaps we might feel a call to reach out to our leaders, to our priests, bishops, maybe even the Pope, to say that we are here to exhort, support, and hold accountable our leaders in doing the right thing. Not an accusation – for there are many good members of the clergy – but to say ‘I as member of the faithful want to add my voice to the chorus of those offering both support and the expectation of you doing what is right as leader within the Body of Christ’.

We have challenging times in front of us – and I think there will be more to come. I imagine that this is not the end, but the beginning of many hard truths coming to light, sinfulness in the Church even at the highest levels.

And yet, what is our center? It is Christ – it has always been Christ. We’ve strayed from that truth from time to time. Perhaps we’ve experienced that in our own lives, though we certainly see the results when our clergy – especially our bishops and priests – stray. And yet Christ always calls us back.

After Christ’s death & resurrection – and recall that at His Passion all of His apostles abandoned Him, Peter denied Him, Thomas doubted Him – Christ’s response was not to come to scold, to be angry, or to announce that He was done with them. He instead appears to them, breathes on them, and says ‘peace be with you’.

He even goes individually to Peter and has that amazing moment of the threefold question ‘Do you love Me? Do you love Me? Do you love Me? – Feed my sheep, tend my flock, care for my people’. Even to Thomas, who doubted, He comes and invites Him ‘if this is what you need, touch me, be healed, have faith’.

This is the offer He makes to us as well. You may be doubting, you may be suffering. ‘Come to Me, receive Me, I will give you peace.’

It is necessary to mention that there may be people in our lives, in our community, maybe in this very church, who are victims of abuse by clergy. To you I would say, especially – I am sorry. I know that simply saying that doesn’t change much of anything. Yet you deserve that and so much more.

If you are a victim, please speak to someone. To a priest, to trusted friend, to anyone who you have confidence in. If a crime has been committed, please reach out to the police. Please tell some authority. We have to shine a light on this, and you deserve to be supported and cared for.

What has been done is diabolically wrong. Now we have to work to help make it right. How do we do that? Jesus – the source and summit of our faith. He has given us His very Body & Blood to feed us. We taste and see that He is good, even when we are not very. But He will transform us, He will make us good if we stay close to Him. Our job is to make Christ present to the world, and we do that by receiving the Lord.

What a wonderful mercy we have in Christ, Who is forgiving, Christ Who sees our failings and our faults, grave and grievous as they are. He responds sayings ‘Here I am, to give you what you need, to be healed and made whole, to know peace’.

May we cling to what we have – Him who is Christ. May we stay close to the sacraments – especially in confession and the Eucharist. May we take responsibility – even for sins that are not ours personally. May we work to show Christ’s love to a world that is hurting – yes, because of our Church –yet needs to know that Christ is still present to them.

This is our faith – and it’s hard… but worth it. Because Christ can heal even this wound, He can restore even this fault, He can make good even of grave sin. And how do we start? The celebration of the Eucharist, making our own prayers, and fasting & reparation – trusting that Christ will work through us, if we are willing to let Him, so that victims will be healed and also even us, who are now more than ever aware of our sinfulness. Christ wants to give us very His Body and Blood – maybe today we realize more how much we need it.

‘Taste and see the goodness of the Lord’

Footnotes:

  1. I forgot to mention Confirmation, where we are sealed by the Holy Spirit so we can go out and proclaim Christ, inviting others to the altar of sacrifice

Post script (a commentary I offered (again) after all the Masses this weekend):

This may be a moment in history when the faithful are called to exhort the clergy, especially our bishops. You may be discerning if and how to write a letter to our archbishop or your local ordinary. I admit that I am fearful of having a parishioner write some sort of nastygram to a bishop with the justification of ‘Father Maurer said to give you a piece of my mind, so here I go!’. Not so fast, please.

If you write a letter, recall that it is another human being who is going to open it and read it – a human being with needs and feelings much like your own. Write with charity, with gentleness even (especially!) if you have hard things that you need to express. Kindness strengthens both your credibility and your message.

And do not ask for the impossible. Bishops do not have the power to investigate other bishops – this is written into Church law and has been done so for many good reasons. But bishops can hold each other accountable in other ways, and they can together request that pope take a more active and authoritative role in situations like these (such as empowering an independent review on his authority as pope). Support and exhortation for bishops to take this step is something we all can offer, though again, in charity and without malice.

Whether we reach out to a bishop or not, all of us can make a difference in simply reaching out in prayer. Foremost, pray for the victims of abuse, for their healing and for the support that they deserve & need. Pray for those members of the Church who are hurting – laity and clergy alike – who need support in the face of all of this. And let us take up fasting! All of us can make sacrifices, whether it be in food or some other form of abstinence. Each of us has the ability to call on God’s grace today and every day. Let’s be sure that we do just that, so that our Church may be purified and we might truly be a conduit of grace for a broken world.

Author: Father Jacob Maurer

I'm a Latin rite priest of the Archdiocese of Seattle, enjoy most things nerdy, love reading and occasionally have the wherewithal to actually write something around here.