On the Fifth Sunday of Easter
and in memory of Saint Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church
The church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria was at peace. It was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit it grew in numbers. (Acts 9:31)
I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. (John 15:5, 7)
According to recent surveys, about 25% of Catholic women in the United States attend weekly mass. That’s only one in four, meaning that about 75% don’t. I am very concerned about this. I think of my own faith and consider its importance in the context of my life, I am not sure what kind of person I would be without it. I am grateful for a very firm foundation from my parents and grandparents, but without that foundation, I don’t know if I would have survived some of the things that have happened to me. Considering that my mother and my grandmother were the two people most responsible for that foundation, I am very afraid for the next generations who might not have that same gift.
My grandmother taught the first communion catechism class for many, many years. Today, I consider that my spirituality is Eucharistic. I image that my grandmother had something to do with that, even as have very few specific memories of my second grade catechism class.
When I finished my masters program at the GTU and Jesuit School of Theology, one of the Jesuit faculty members, Fr John Endres, noticed that my mother was praying the rosary as I graduated. He brought this to my attention expecting that I would be surprised to know that. But I shrugged it off, I already knew that she prays the rosary every day, so this was no surprise at all, not to me. It took him a second to process that I already knew this about her. No one is surprised to know that parents know their children, but really children also know their parents. Well.
Over the years I have come to believe that prayer is indeed very powerful, and not only because my mother prays. I have learned however that one needs to pray for the right things, and the better friends one becomes with God the easier it will be to know what to pray for. I figure that if I pray for the same things that Jesus prayed for, then the odds are good that God will not be disappointed in my desires. If you agree with me than you probably also pray for justice and mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation, the fullness of life, holiness, truth and peace.
These readings today prompt me to offer a particular prayer, one that I have faith God wants very much to grant when the time is right. Today, I want to pray for our church, that it will be built up and grow in numbers with the consolation of the Holy Spirit. I invite you to pray with me, God please help us build up your church.
We read about a similar communal flourishing in the Acts of the Apostles today. Of course, this peace that the reading suggests only came about after Paul was sent back to Tarsus, and not because he was being commissioned to preach to the gentiles. Paul was a trouble maker with a less than proud history of relationship with the early followers of Jesus, and so they sent him away. Eventually he would find solid ground for ministry, and the early church owes him a huge debt of gratitude. Jesus knew what he was doing when he tapped Paul. But the beginning of the story is not picture perfect.
Sometimes I think we are also tempted to dismiss or ignore the people who disagree with us. We hope that by expelling those people the church will be holy, pure and faithful. And sometimes those people want to do the same thing to us, because they think that they are the faithful remnant. Yet, the gospel tells us today that, God is the vine dresser. God is responsible for trimming the vines so that we can all produce even greater fruit in the future.
I need to do some yard work at home and I was thinking that I could just ask God to borrow the heavenly pruning shears, so I would not have to make a special trip to the hardware store. But then I read the reading again, and I can see that the shears used by God for the pruning are located in the words of Jesus, and for us they are in the scriptures and in the gospel. So I guess I will need to buy my own shears after all. I have several bibles, but I don’t think that any of them will be able to trim back the mums from the fall. I leave these dead flowers for a while because I like to see the contour in the garden over the wintertime, but now that the daffodils are blooming, the mums need to go. But I know that they will come back in the fall. Just like I know that the daffodils will only last for a while, but they will be back again next year probably even stronger. Then there will be tulips, phlox, lilacs, lilies, irises, bleeding hearts, Queen Anne’s lace, daisies, fever few, rudebekia, milkweed, thistles, hostas and then mums again.
My mom also taught me how to garden, and how to distinguish between weeds and flowers. You see when you know what you have planted, you will not be surprised when it comes up in the place where you planted it. But it would be very hard for an inexperienced gardener to come into my yard and weed my gardens, because I have planted many different types of plant material, and if I let just anyone try to weed my gardens that person would likely make a lot of mistakes, because they do not know what I have planted. I would let my mom weed my gardens, but anyone else, unless you are a master gardener, don’t even think about it.
And so it is with God also. Jesus knows what God has planted, and when inexperienced gardeners try to tend God’s gardens, God gets very nervous, because God knows it is easy for an inexperienced person to make a mistake. Some people will see a beautiful plant, like a thistle, but they will think it is weed. And so pulling weeds needs to be done with great care and skill. Thistles are friendly to butterflies. I like that about them.
But it is important to the pull weeds. If something unintended sprouts up it can compete for resources and actually crowd out what is intended to grow in that place. Even some pretty things can also grow out of control and so those things need to be either pulled out or at least cut back when the time is right so they don’t take over the whole space.
I mentioned earlier that the majority of US catholic women today do not attend mass weekly. I need to confess that I am one of those women. Until the age of about 38 or so, I was quite faithful to weekly mass attendance. I knew that many of my generational peers were not, and some of those people shared their reasons with me, but I did not join their number until shortly after something traumatic happened to me. Even with a good therapist, I spent two years recovering from PTSD.
And so now I have a particular perspective on the weeds that are growing in our catholic ecclesial community. In my opinion there are many weeds, some of them are quite invasive and because we suffer from a lack of skilled gardeners with multicultural and universal gardening knowledge it is hard to maintain the right conditions to let all of the intended plants flourish.
Some of the lapsed are characterized as lazy people who are not willing to invest in their own church. And maybe there is a little truth to that, but I have also observed that many of these people just don’t want to be associated with the contagion of injustice. And so their absence is really not laziness, it is a boycott. But the church is not a democracy and so lay people, we can only vote with our feet. And where we chose to place our body on Sunday morning is a way of praying with our body. Unfortunately, this walking away is usually not interpreted by leadership in a way that places any responsibility on leadership. This is very sad to me. People of my generation, and the younger generations also, we want to see right relationships for women, the poor, the oppressed and for people who struggle to live the strictly constructed relational ideal prescribed by the magisterium.
It is also sad that these people who leave to preserve their integrity, they are left without community. All kinds of terrible things happen when community falls apart: relationships fail, people feel isolated and alone, expectations are unreasonable, mental illness spikes, violence grows. We all need community. We are social people, we need each other. Living a life of virtue and happiness requires good friends who can help us grow in virtue. We need communities. We need to belong to communities. And so when the Church fails some people, it is really betraying us all. These failures are tearing apart the fabric of our community. Some of the weeds growing are very dangerous.
As an accountant, I know that even the appearance of inappropriate behavior can have dramatic effects on markets and businesses. The economy of salvation is similar. Yet the church suffers from much more than the appearance of misconduct. The church suffers from some serious misconduct. Certainly we don’t want to spread false rumors, but to bury our head in the sand and pretend that these scandals don’t exist, because it will be uncomfortable to admit the reality of exploitation and sin, this is very dangerous. I do not want you to be unprepared. There are some serious wounds in our church that are not completely exposed yet. Sadly, I believe that it is going to get worse before it gets better.
Studying theology at a multicultural theologate, I was a little surprised to learn that so many diocesan priests (in other countries) keep mistresses and raise children, while providing practically no financial support to their family. Yet these same bishops claim to be defenders of traditional marriage. Is there also a 300 page dossier in the Pope’s files documenting the depravity of gross indecency and sexual exploitation in Rome? With my own personal experience, I find it easy to believe that this would indeed reveal some serious iniquity and shame. The truth is going to come out.
If we want future generations to know of the power of God, we need to let God into these wounds and scandals so they can be healed in the light. I have every confidence that God wants to help heal these wounds. But we need to be able to admit that we have some serious problems and face them head on. We should want to be reconciled with each other in the church. We should pray to be reconciled even with the people who have hurt us the most.
God wants to help us turn these scandals, these stumbling blocks into stepping stones. But we need to let God help us do that. Without God, we will be able to accomplish nothing.
In the Dialogue of Catherine of Siena, she tells us that Jesus is the Bridge that joins earth to heaven. With all of our affections, we climb these steps to Christ’s heart to feel his passion for us and for the world and to taste the peace of Christ on his lips. This bridge is covered to protect the traveler from the rains of justice, and the walls of the bridge are made of stones. These stones are the true solid virtues which are held together by a mortar made with Christ’s own blood.
And so as we continue to build our church, with the consolation of the Holy Spirit, let us use the true solid virtues and also these scandals, these stepping stones, set in the mortar of God’s love to construct the church which God asks us to continue building today.
Catherine’s Dialogue with God also tells us that Charity has two daugthers, obedience and patience. Charity and obedience are nourished by a wet-nurse named humility. Humility clothes the soul with disgrace, mockery and abuse, so that we can prefer God’s pleasure over our own. The only way to Gaudete et Exsultate is to embrace this wet-nurse named humility, to let her nourish the church, so that we can weep and mourn, and hunger for righteousness and justice, even if there will be persecutions. This is what is required to be blessed by God. Trust me, I have been blessed by God, I know.
This this the truth; it is not glamorous. This is the gospel, it is glorious.
God, please help us build your church, through Christ, with Christ, In Christ in the unity and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit. Please accept the sacrifice of our lives and suffering together with Your Truth's Love for the salvation of our souls. Amen.