21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA
NB: In case you want to see what a “blocked” writing process looks like, I have included some failed attempts at the end.
I have to make a confession. For whatever reason, I had a massive block every time I sat down to write a homily about our Gospel today. I did research, I re-read old notes and papers from seminary, I procrastinated, and none of it helped. Eventually, I had to give up. I had to cheat. I had to listen to Bishop Barron’s homily. You can tell, by the way, that Bishop Barron really cares about priests, because he publishes his homilies on Wednesday, not Sunday.
Well anyway, praise God, Bishop Barron had an insight which really unlocked this Gospel for me. He pointed out that the question being asked of Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” was likely asked in the context of one observant Jew to another. Meaning that the person who asked the question was really asking, “Lord, will only good Jews be saved?” Jesus’ answer was that salvation depends on walking the path of discipleship, not on one’s membership in a particular group or ethnicity. Bishop Barron explains all of this very well, and I will not rehash his homily here, since you can listen to it on your own time. Instead, I would like to address a follow-up question: do we, today, act like the questioner in the Gospel by presuming our salvation just because we are members of the Catholic Church?
I think most of us would immediately say no, our Catholicism does not cause us to presume our salvation. Catholicism, it seems, conditions us to do the opposite. We are so focused on sin and our need for confession, so focused on how far we fall short of the example of the saints, so focused on how bad we are at saying our prayers, that no Catholic would ever presume to be saved. We get to a place where we all think we’ll be lucky if we can squeak into Purgatory. Fair enough on the personal level.
But in another sense, we do presume our salvation, because we believe in the superiority of our Church. I mean, Catholicism is the most ancient of all forms of Christianity, preserving unity with the Bishop of Rome, who is the successor of St. Peter himself. We possess the truest doctrine and the purest worship. We are the ones you call if you have a demon problem. If Jesus is going to claim any church as his own, it kind of feels like it is going to be us. Which might, then, cause us to ask, consciously or unconsciously, “Lord, will only the good Catholics be saved?”
And here the Lord’s answer remains perennially valid: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” In other words, focus on being a disciple, not on which groups will be saved and which will not be.
Still, though, it seems wrong to say that our Catholicism is unimportant to our salvation. How do we find the balance between focusing on discipleship while also believing that there is something special and important about being Catholic?
My friends, the benefit of Catholicism is that it makes it easier to become a disciple of Jesus. What is the point of the teachings of the Church? To help us know the Lord better. What is the point of the sacraments entrusted to the Church? To help up unite ourselves to Jesus. Just the fact of being Catholic does not ensure our salvation, but Catholicism puts at our fingertips everything we need to become friends of the Lord and to follow him closely.
What of other religions? As Vatican II makes clear, God can act as he wills, and it seems that he has brought grace through other Christian churches and truth through non-Christian faiths. These other systems of belief can be a source of unity with God and a motivation to strive through the narrow gate. But all grace and all truth come exclusively through Jesus Christ whether these other religions recognize that they are pursuing Jesus or not. So we can say that the Catholic Church, having the clearest picture of Jesus Christ, is going to be the easiest place in which to become a disciple. Not because being Catholic automatically brings salvation, but because being a disciple is easier with true faith and pure worship.
Since we have been given the great gift of the Catholic faith, since we have been given the shortest road to discipleship and salvation, how senseless must we be if we do not take full advantage of it?
Of course, the irony is not lost on me that I am preaching the efficacy and superiority of the Catholic faith while the nightly news is laying bare the great rot and corruption found in our Church. How can I say that our Church points most directly to God when an outside observer might say that we are pointing most directly at the Devil?
The answer is twofold. First, the truth of our doctrine and the purity of our worship somehow remains unadulterated even though our hierarchy has been infected with sin and cowardice. That anything should remain unaffected by such a systematic failure is a strong indication that God is at work protecting those things necessary for our salvation.
Second, as the letter to the Hebrews says, “My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.” Like with Cyrus the Great in the Old Testament, God is using the secular arm, in this case the news media and attorneys general, to discipline his wayward child, the Church. Our being run through the wringer is, in fact, a great act of love by our Heavenly Father. We are tempted to feel shame, and there is certainly a time and a place for this shame, but before that we should feel blessed that God has chosen us and loved us so much that he sees fit to purify us of our sins. Again, from our second reading: “At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” The Catholic Church does point powerfully to Jesus and does assist mightily in the journey of discipleship, and this evangelical witness will shine all the more clearly when we regain the path of righteousness.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I am so thankful for my Catholic faith. I know that my salvation does not automatically come from my being Catholic, but from my following Jesus with an undivided heart. And I know that Jesus calls to every soul, and that even those outside the Catholic Church may be striving to enter by the narrow gate. But I am still thankful for my Catholic faith, because my Catholic faith makes it so much easier for me to follow Jesus. Even, and maybe especially, in this cycle of discipline, I have no doubt about the presence of Jesus in our sacraments and in our teachings. It would truly be a disgrace, then, if, blessed with the incredible gift of the Catholic faith, we did not use what has been given to us to daily grow closer to the Lord.
Tengo que hacer una confesión. Por alguna razón, tuve un bloqueo masivo cada vez que me sentaba a escribir una homilía sobre nuestro Evangelio hoy. Investigué, releí viejas notas y documentos del seminario, postergué, y nada de eso ayudó. Finalmente, tuve que rendirme. Tuve que hacer trampa. Tuve que escuchar la homilía del Obispo Barron. Por cierto, se puede decir que al Obispo Barron realmente le importan los sacerdotes, porque publica sus homilías el miércoles, no el domingo.
De todos modos, alabado sea Dios, el Obispo Barron tuvo una idea que realmente desbloqueó este Evangelio para mí. Señaló que la pregunta que se le hizo a Jesús: “Señor, ¿es verdad que son pocos los que se salvan?” probablemente se hizo en el contexto de un judío observante a otro. Lo que significa que la persona que hizo la pregunta realmente preguntaba: “Señor, ¿es verdad que son los buenos judíos los que se salvan?” La respuesta de Jesús fue que la salvación depende de seguir el camino del discipulado, no de la membresía de un grupo o etnia en particular. El Obispo Barron explica todo esto muy bien, y no voy a repetir su homilía aquí, ya que puede escucharla en su propio tiempo. En cambio, me gustaría abordar una pregunta de seguimiento: ¿actuamos hoy, como el interrogador en el Evangelio, presumiendo nuestra salvación solo porque somos miembros de la Iglesia Católica?
Creo que la mayoría de nosotros diría de inmediato que no, nuestro catolicismo no nos hace presumir nuestra salvación. El catolicismo, al parecer, nos condiciona a hacer lo contrario. Estamos tan centrados en el pecado y nuestra necesidad de confesión, tan centrados en lo lejos que estamos a la altura del ejemplo de los santos, tan centrados en lo negligentes que somos con decir nuestras oraciones, que ningún católico jamás presumirá ser salvo. Llegamos a un lugar donde todos pensamos que tendremos suerte si podemos entrar al Purgatorio. Bastante justo a nivel personal.
Pero en otro sentido, presumimos nuestra salvación, porque creemos en la superioridad de nuestra Iglesia. Quiero decir, el catolicismo es la más antigua de todas las formas de cristianismo, preservando la unidad con el obispo de Roma, quien es el sucesor del propio San Pedro. Poseemos la doctrina más verdadera y la adoración más pura. Somos los que llaman si tienen un problema de demonio. Si Jesús va a reclamar alguna iglesia como suya, se siente como si seremos nosotros. ¿Qué podría, entonces, hacernos preguntar, consciente o inconscientemente, “Señor, ¿es verdad que son los buenos Católicos los que se salvan?”
Y aquí la respuesta del Señor sigue siendo perennemente válida: “Esfuércense en entrar por la puerta, que es angosta.” En otras palabras, concéntrate en ser un discípulo, no en cuáles grupos se salvarán y cuáles no.
Sin embargo, parece incorrecto decir que nuestro catolicismo no es importante para nuestra salvación. ¿Cómo encontramos el equilibrio entre enfocarnos en el discipulado y creer que hay algo especial e importante en ser católico?
Amigos míos, el beneficio del catolicismo es que hace que sea más fácil convertirse en discípulo de Jesús. ¿Cuál es el punto de las enseñanzas de la Iglesia? Para ayudarnos a conocer mejor al Señor. ¿Cuál es el punto de los sacramentos confiados a la Iglesia? Para ayudarnos a unirnos a Jesús. El solo hecho de ser católicos no garantiza nuestra salvación, pero el catolicismo pone a nuestro alcance todo lo que necesitamos para convertirnos en amigos del Señor y seguirlo de cerca.
¿Qué hay de otras religiones? Como aclara el Concilio Vaticano Segundo, Dios puede actuar como lo desee, y parece que ha traído gracia a través de otras iglesias cristianas y verdad a través de religiones no cristianas. Estos otros sistemas de creencias pueden ser una fuente de unidad con Dios y una motivación para luchar por la puerta angosta. Pero toda gracia y toda verdad vienen exclusivamente a través de Jesucristo, ya sea que estas otras religiones reconozcan que están persiguiendo a Jesús o no. Entonces podemos decir que la Iglesia Católica, teniendo la imagen más clara de Jesucristo, será el lugar más fácil para convertirse en discípulo. No porque ser católico automáticamente traiga salvación, sino porque ser un discípulo es más fácil con la verdadera fe y la adoración pura.
Dado que se nos ha dado el gran regalo de la fe católica, dado que se nos ha dado el camino más corto hacia el discipulado y la salvación, ¿qué tan insensatos debemos ser si no lo aprovechamos al máximo?
Por supuesto, no se me pierde la ironía de que estoy predicando la eficacia y la superioridad de la fe católica mientras las noticias nocturnas ponen al descubierto la gran podredumbre y corrupción que se encuentra en nuestra Iglesia. ¿Cómo puedo decir que nuestra Iglesia apunta más directamente a Dios cuando un observador externo podría decir que estamos apuntando más directamente al Diablo?
La respuesta es doble. Primero, la verdad de nuestra doctrina y la pureza de nuestra adoración de alguna manera permanece sin adulterar, aunque nuestra jerarquía haya sido infectada con pecado y cobardía. Que algo no se vea afectado por una falla tan sistemática es una fuerte indicación de que Dios está trabajando para proteger esas cosas necesarias para nuestra salvación.
En segundo lugar, como dice la carta a los hebreos: “Hijo mío, no desprecies la corrección del Señor, ni te desanimes cuando te reprenda. Porque el Señor corrige a los que ama, y da azotes a sus hijos predilectos.” Al igual que con Ciro el Grande en el Antiguo Testamento, Dios está usando el brazo secular, en este caso los medios de comunicación y los abogados generales, para disciplinar a su hija rebelde, la Iglesia. Nuestro ser correr a través del escurridor es, de hecho, un gran acto de amor por parte de nuestro Padre Celestial. Estamos tentados a sentir vergüenza, y ciertamente hay un momento y un lugar para esta vergüenza, pero antes de eso debemos sentirnos bendecidos de que Dios nos haya elegido y nos haya amado tanto que él considere conveniente purificarnos de nuestros pecados. Una vez más, de nuestra segunda lectura: “Es cierto que de momento ninguna corrección nos causa alegría, sino más bien tristeza. Pero después produce, en los que la recibieron, frutos de paz y de santidad.” La Iglesia Católica señala poderosamente a Jesús y ayuda poderosamente en el viaje del discipulado, y este testimonio evangélico brillará más claramente cuando recuperemos el camino de santidad.
Mis hermanos y hermanas en Cristo, estoy muy agradecido por mi fe católica. Yo sé que mi salvación no viene automáticamente de ser católico, sino de seguir a Jesús con un corazón indiviso. Y yo sé que Jesús llama a todas las almas, y que incluso aquellos fuera de la Iglesia Católica pueden estar luchando por entrar por la puerta angosta. Pero todavía estoy agradecido por mi fe católica, porque mi fe católica me hace mucho más fácil seguir a Jesús. Incluso, y quizás especialmente, en este ciclo de disciplina, no tengo dudas sobre la presencia de Jesús en nuestros sacramentos y en nuestras enseñanzas. Sería realmente una vergüenza, entonces, si, bendecidos con el increíble don de la fe católica, no usáramos lo que se nos ha dado para acercarnos diariamente al Señor.
Failed Attempt #1
Today’s Gospel is really scary, especially for us Catholics. “After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’”
As a Catholic, I put a lot of stock in the idea that Jesus is present in the Catholic Church, and that the Catholic Church points powerfully to Jesus. If I did not, I would not put in the extreme effort necessary to follow such a counter-cultural institution. To put it another way, as a Catholic, I believe Jesus has taught in my streets (in the teachings of the Church) and that I have eaten in his company (in the sacraments of the Church).
And yet, that is exactly the claim of the man cast out in today’s Gospel. How do I know I will not meet the same fate?
Again, I think this Gospel is scary, especially for us Catholics,
What is the benefit of being Catholic?
Obviously I think there must be some benefit to being Catholic. One does not become a priest for the wealth or the women. And obviously you think there must be some benefit to being Catholic: Catholicism runs counter to the spirit of the age, and it would be much easier to give up the faith, go with the flow, and not have to give up a chunk of your weekend to be here.
But what is the benefit of being Catholic?
I ask this question because the Gospel today worries me:
“After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door, then will you stand outside knocking and saying, ‘Lord, open the door for us.’ He will say to you in reply, ‘I do not know where you are from.’ And you will say, ‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’ Then he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’”
Let’s say I absolutely believe that Jesus is present in the Catholic Church, and that the Catholic Church points powerfully to Jesus. In other words, let’s say that, because I am Catholic, I believe Jesus has taught in my streets and that I have eaten in his company. How can I be sure that I am entering through the narrow gate and that the Lord will recognize me at the eschaton?
In order to answer this question, I have to back up quite a few steps.
Things seems so much easier before the Second Vatican Council, because everything was presented in terms far more black and white. The benefit of being Catholic was that we were right and everyone else was wrong; that they were going to Hell and we at least had a shot at Purgatory. Catholicism was quite obviously the narrow gate, and the Protestants were the ones fooling themselves that Jesus was going to recognize them in the end. This is an exaggeration, but not much of an exaggeration.
Then the Council came along and made things complicated with this line from the Decree on Ecumenism: “It follows that the separated Churches and Communities as such, though we believe them to be deficient in some respects, have been by no means deprived of significance and importance in the mystery of salvation. For the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as means of salvation which derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Church.” (Unitatis Redintegratio 3 §5)
Making thing even more complicated is the statement from Lumen Gentium about those who do not believe in Jesus: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.”
Quote from Pius XII, Mystici corporis: “[Let those be invited] who do not belong to the visible Body of the Catholic Church … to seek to withdraw from that state in which they cannot be sure of their salvation. For even though by an unconscious desire and longing they have a certain relationship with the Mystical Body of the Redeemer, they still remain deprived of those many heavenly gifts and helps that can only be enjoyed in the Catholic Church. Therefore, may they enter into Catholic unity and, joined with us in the one, organic Body of Jesus Christ, may they together with us run on to the one Head in the society of most glorious love…” (#242)
Failed Attempt #2
I absolutely believe that the Catholic Church, hierarchically ordered in union with the Bishop of Rome, is the visible expression of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic reality begun by Jesus. I absolutely believe that, even with the great corruption and rot which we observe today in the Church, the truest doctrine and the truest worship can be found here. And I have to believe that many of you share these convictions, otherwise you would have left long ago.
And yet, sometimes, and I think this actually gets worse the more you love and adore the Catholic Church, sometimes we fall into the trap of believing that because the Church is holy and filled with the presence of the Lord, we are too, just by being Catholic. But this is a trap! Despite the fact that God chose the Jews above all ancient civilizations and revealed himself to them directly, this does not mean that just by being Jewish one can presume salvation. Similarly, despite the fact that Jesus has never allowed true doctrine or true worship to depart from the Catholic Church, just the fact of being Catholic does not mean that a Catholic can presume the presence of God in their life. Instead, the message of the Gospel is that status and membership does not mean salvation, discipleship does.
Now, none of this is to say that being Jewish or being Catholic is unimportant. Far from it! Possessing true doctrine and true worship means that our path to God is much shorter than anyone else’s, because we have a much more accurate picture of who God is, and we have much more powerful ways in which we can experience his actions in our lives. But the blessings of Catholicism are a means to an end: the end being our unity with Jesus now and for eternity. If we are not using the gifts of our faith to strive to enter the narrow gate, to unite ourselves with Jesus, then our Catholicism is wasted on us. Amazingly, there are others in the world, either in other Christian churches or even outside of Christianity, who do not possess the great doctrinal and sacramental gifts of Catholicism, and yet they somehow manage to strive to enter through the narrow gate and be saved. How convicted should we feel when we are given everything we need and still fail to use it?
This brings us to the second theme I want to address. Here I am unabashedly claiming that the Catholic Church
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the earliest Christians believed that God fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah through the Catholic Church. As Isaiah says, “They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations as an offering to the LORD, … Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.” And the earliest Christians rejoiced that the Lord would establish a Church that contained more than just the Jewish people. As Jesus himself says, “[…] people will come from the east and the west and from the north and the south and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.”
God established his Church as a home for all people, where every language, nationality, and culture could strive together to enter the narrow gate, where salvation was no longer restricted to a certain people or ethnicity. I know that, as a Catholic, I have been given clear doctrine and powerful sacraments it is incumbent upon me not to take for granted to great gifts I have been given in my Catholic faith. I know that salvation is not ensured just because I am Catholic, and that it is my pursuit of discipleship that will matter in the end. Even still, I am so thankful to be Catholic and to be able to rely on the teachings and the sacraments of the Church in my pursuit of Jesus. Even in a period of discipline, I would not trade my faith for the world.