Sunday, May 13, 2012

Homily for 6th Sunday of Easter

Homily for the
6th Sunday of Easter
May 13, 2012
Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48
Ursulines, Willow Dr., New Rochelle

“Peter ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10: 48).
Sacrament of Baptism.
Stained glass in St. Mary's Church, Fredericksburg, Va.
No doubt you’re familiar with the story of the conversion of the Roman Cornelius and his household, an event whose significance in Luke’s narrative and in the history of the Church it’s impossible to exaggerate.

You’re also familiar with the details leading up to it: Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean members of the animal kingdom and God’s command that he should accept all of them (10:9-16), and Cornelius’s vision that he should send to Joppa for Peter (10:1-8).

You’re also familiar with later details in Acts: of Paul and Barnabas’s preaching to the Gentiles and the so-called council of Jerusalem that agreed to admit Gentiles to full communion in the body of Christ’s believers (Acts 15), much of which made up our 1st readings last Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

How are people saved? By observing the Law of Moses and being good Jews? If so, how does the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus effect our redemption? Can God claim the whole world for himself in Christ? Does he wish to?

Such were the issues that Peter, the Church in Jerusalem, and the wider community of the followers of Jesus struggled with in these 1st two decades after the Ascension of Jesus, after the gift of the Holy Spirit to the assembled Church.

The way in which the Church resolved this issue has ever since been our guide in dealing with difficult questions, with new challenges to our theology and pastoral practice. The Church took 2 approaches in answering the question of the relationship between the Gentiles and the Lord Jesus Christ, of the place of the Mosaic Law in Christian identity. The 1st approach is the one in today’s reading, and the 2d the one in Acts 15, the council at Jerusalem—the meeting between Paul and Barnabas, coming up from Antioch, and “the apostles and elders” (15:2,6).

St. Peter holding keys.
Fresco in Church of Quo Vadis, Rome
The 1st approach relies on the charism of Petrine leadership. Peter’s aided here by a direct revelation, but his decision’s consistent with the mandate given him by Jesus in the gospels—explicitly in Matthew (16:17-19) and John (21:15-17), and implicitly in Luke (22:31-32). God has evidently called upon Peter to act in a radically new way for the salvation of souls, and the Church listens to Peter in this matter of binding and loosing, of using the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

The 2d approach is the Church in grand assembly, together voicing different opinions and seeking guidance from the Lord. When they reach a decision, they voice it in the name of the Church and the Holy Spirit (Acts 15:28), that Spirit given to the Church by Jesus to guide her to all truth (John 16:13), that Spirit thru whom Jesus remains with his Church until the close of the present age (Matt 28:20).

You know your church history, sisters, and so you know that Jesus’ Church has used both of these approaches thruout her history: the magisterium or charism of teaching exercised by Peter’s successors, and the magisterium exercised by ecumenical councils. Sometimes councils have been prodded or guided by Peter’s successor, e.g. St. Leo the Great’s teaching on the one Person and two natures of Christ at Chalcedon and the leadership of Blessed John XXIII and Paul VI at Vatican II. Sometimes Peter’s successor has refused to sanction what a council of bishops has done, leaving some decree and even entire councils as theological footnotes, e.g. “robber council” of Ephesus in 449 and the decrees on conciliarism of the councils of Constance and Basel in the 15th century. Other councils have had little papal involvement but been accepted as authoritative by the Pope and the Church, e.g. Nicaea I, which wrote most of our profession of faith, and Trent, which defined the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism and left to the Popes the tasks of reforming the liturgy and composing a catechism.

These 2 approaches to challenging doctrinal and pastoral matters remain the ways in which the Spirit of Jesus leads the Church. No individual bishop, priest, sister, or lay person has the charism of leadership that Jesus gave to Peter and his successors, no matter how charismatic the individual, no matter how convinced the individual is of his or her own righteousness, no matter that some following gather around him or her, e.g. Fr. George Stallings in Washington, Fr. Jim Callan in Rochester, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Abp. Marcel Lefebvre—you see them at both ends of the theological spectrum. You all remember the ad slogan, “When E.F. Hutton talks, people listen.” Such individuals do a lot of talking and gain some listeners. But you may also remember that E.F. Hutton’s not around any more.

If the individual’s right, that will be borne out in due time under the Spirit’s guidance, e.g. Fr. John Courtney Murray, Fr. Henri du Lubac (later cardinal), to some extent Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. These remind me of Gamaliel’s advice about the apostles to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5 (vv. 34-39), to the effect that God will sustain what he has himself inspired.

The Holy Spirit poured out upon the Church.
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington
These 2 inspired approaches, Petrine and conciliar, have bearing on how we live as religious, too. The Church in solemn assembly at Vatican II called upon us to be radicals: literally, to return to our roots, to look to the Gospel and the charism of our founders, and to reform our Rules, our practices, and our apostolic activity in the light of what the Gospel and the founders show us.

In the subsequent decades, the Church—thru Peter’s successor or thru his deputies—continues to offer us guidance, sometimes controversially so. The recent visitation of active women religious in the U.S. and the still more recent action regarding the LCWR might seem as shocking to you as what Peter did in Cornelius’s house shocked some leaders of the Church in Jerusalem, to whom Peter had to explain himself (see Acts 11:1-18). Even those traveling with Peter—to whom he must already have reported his vision in Joppa—“were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit should have been poured out on the Gentiles also” (10:45). That wasn’t supposed to happen!

So we need to ask, where’s the Holy Spirit in what’s going on now between religious families and the Holy See? Is the Spirit trying to tell us something about religious life in our country, its direction, its condition, as the Spirit spoke to Peter and demonstrated his presence in Cornelius’s house?

Our psalm today proclaims, “The Lord has made his salvation known: in the sight of the nations he has revealed his justice” (98:2). It was so in the 1st century, and it remains so in the 21st for those who listen to the Spirit.

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