in Ordinary TimeOct. 30, 2011
1 Thess 2: 7-9, 13
Mal 1:14—2:2, 8-10
Matt 23: 1-12
Wood Badge Scouters, Camp Alpine, N.J.
Ursulines, Willow Dr., N.R.
“In receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe” (1 Thess 2: 13).
Next month the bishops of the U.S. will begin their ad limina visits to Rome. These are meetings that every bishop is required to make every 5 years, involving regional group and sometimes individual meetings with the Holy Father and with different members of the Roman Curia to report on their dioceses and to receive particular instruction and guidance from the successor of St. Peter. The Latin words ad limina, or in the full phrase, ad limina apostolorum, means literally “to” or “at the threshold of the apostles,” and that refers to the custom associated with these 5-yearly visits that the bishops go as pilgrims, as it were, to the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul to pay homage to them and to reaffirm their fidelity to the teaching of the apostles. (See CNS story at http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1104247.htm) The bishops are successors of the apostles, we’ve often heard—I rather doubt that many young Catholics hear it now—and that refers to their pastoral responsibilities to receive the faith that the apostles taught, to teach that faith, to hand on that faith—with all that implies about sacraments, doctrine, and discipline.
The prophet Malachi, as we heard in the 1st reading, castigates the priests of his day, about 400 years B.C., for not discharging their responsibilities faithfully, in both worship and teaching. Instead of giving glory to God (2:2) and true guidance to the Jewish people, by their words and their practices, they in effect insult God and lead the people astray. And God definitely is not happy.
In our own time, we’ve seen much too often the scandal caused by priests who aren’t faithful—be their infidelities sexual, financial, or pastoral (e.g., harshness, unavailability, failure to preach the Word of God in any meaningful way, sloppy or self-centered liturgy). As one poll showed last year, the 2d largest denomination in the U.S. (if it were actually a denomination) is ex-Catholics. There are many reasons for that—among them the bad example that both Malachi and Jesus chastise today, and especially the failure to feed God’s flock with substantive teaching; people hunger for the Word of God and will go where they find it. We note that sometimes, also, people leave because they resist authentic teaching as too difficult (cf. John 6:60,66) and not in accordance with their own preferences.
Many of you probably saw a report on another survey in Tuesday’s papers—USA Today* and the Journal News and perhaps others. According to this survey of self-identified American Catholics, only 44% of them regularly attend Sunday Mass, which means of course that 56% of people who consider themselves Catholic don’t go to Mass regularly. The resurrection of jesus is important to 73%; the poll doesn’t tell us what the other 27% are planning to do with their eternity. Daily prayer life is important to 46%, opposition to abortion to 40%, opposition to same-sex “marriage” to 35%, the Pope’s teaching authority to 30%. “More than half of Catholics, including those highly committed to the church in their personal practices, say it’s their own moral views, not those of church leaders, that matter.”
I’m afraid both Jesus and St. Paul would have a problem with that. Jesus tells his hearers to “do and observe all things whatsoever the scribes and Pharisees tell you,” regardless of their behavior, because they speak with the authority of Moses, who received revelation, and the Torah especially, from God. Paul equates his own apostolic teaching with the Word of God. Bear in mind that as Paul wrote this, the New Testament didn’t exist! His letters are chronologically the very 1st components of the NT to be written down. Matthew, Mark, and Luke are still 10, 20, or 30 years down the road. But the words, the teaching, are what was inspired, what was important, what had to be listened to, taken in, reflected upon, and obeyed. It has to be received just as you receive Holy Communion. God’s word is saving and life-giving only when made part of one’s life.
Which applies to you and me as much as to the Christians of Thessalonica or the priests of Jerusalem. Bishops and priests of course are supposed to do that—read, study, pray, preach, and live the Word of God. But so are you, O people of God! “We too give thanks to God unceasingly that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God.”
The word of God, handed down from Peter and Paul and the other apostles, is that same word that Benedict XVI and the bishops of the Catholic world preach today, and priests on behalf of their bishops. Whether that word is easy—God loves you, for instance—or hard—God makes moral demands of you—it’s God’s word and not “only” the Pope’s, the Vatican’s, Abp. Dolan’s, or your pastor’s. We have only one rabbi, one teacher, one master, Jesus tells his followers—and it’s him (Matt 23:8-11). We find him in his Word (which, by the way, includes the sacraments of the Catholic Church), and that Word, not our own opinions or our own wisdom or our own moral views, to cite that survey—God’s Word is what saves us from our sins and brings us home to our Father.
Pilgrims crowding around St. Paul's tomb in the basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, Rome
* Oct. 25, 2011, p. 3A.