30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The idea of welcoming has taken center stage at the Extraordinary Synod of the Family the past two weeks. And as usual the headlines have been sensational. Fill in the blank for the special interest group who is dissatisfied. This cardinal said something this group thought was unwelcoming. That bishop said something that group thought was welcoming, and so forth. The word of the day seems to be welcome.
I think we are all looking for welcome from our church. We all have our issues and problems and are broken by our sins. Why do some feel so excluded? What does it mean to be welcoming? I think it means different things to different people. To some it means live and let live. To others it means hate the sin but love the sinner. Many people want the church to change to meet their lifestyle choices, rather than them changing their lives to conform to the gospel. Some people have a political agenda. Some people are just plain mean.
Today we hear from the book of Exodus the call to hospitality. Do not oppress the alien among you, for you were once aliens yourself. Hospitality – welcoming the stranger – is a core virtue for Middle Eastern societies even today. Even before they were the chosen people, the Hebrews were wandering Bedouins. When they wandered around the desert, they relied upon the hospitality of other Bedouins sometimes for their very survival. And so being hospitable was a matter of life or death, and elaborate rituals sprung up around the welcoming of strangers.
Welcome strangers when their lives depend on it so that strangers will welcome you when your life depends on it. Isn’t that what loving you neighbor as yourself is all about? Don’t our lives depend upon it?
Every time I hold a class preparing parents for the baptism of their children, I try to get them to understand the awesomeness of their decision and exactly what they are committing to do. I’d say that most of them have been away from the Church for some time, but something about the responsibility of becoming a parent has made them come back to have their children baptized. We talk a lot about what it means to be a Catholic and what their rights and responsibilities are as a Catholic.
Many of them are surprised that they have rights as a baptized person. All they’d ever thought about was their responsibilities; the rules they have to follow. But one of the key rights we discuss is their right to feel welcome in the church. Usually they say that welcoming means being non-judgmental. They want to feel at home in the church itself. They want to walk in, even if they haven’t been in church for a long time, and feel that they have a place there.
And we don’t talk about why they haven’t been to Mass. We talk about how the baptism of their children is a new beginning, not just for their sons and daughters but for their entire families. We don’t get into any issues or misunderstandings they may have, that’s for later. We just ask them to come and see and be open to the gospel. The Mass is not the time or place to have a discussion with someone about their lifestyle choices. But we don’t sweep those issues under the rug. We talk about them in a different venue.
We try to welcome people like Jesus welcomed them. For Jesus, there was always an action and a reaction. He welcomed tax collectors and sinners into his company of disciples, but he then called them to reform their lives. He knew that by welcoming them he was not necessarily condoning their former lives. He was more concerned with what they were going to do from that point on.
“Come and see,” he says. Come join my disciples. And when you do come and see it is our job to give you the entire picture. And it is your job to seriously consider the gospel and then decide whether or not you can accept it and live it. The same Jesus who said I have not come to condemn you is the same Jesus who said “Will you also leave?” Remember that in John’s gospel all but 12 rejected Jesus’ message. Jesus didn’t water down the gospel just to pacify them. He called them to make a choice. He calls us to the same choice.
You know, it wasn’t just the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus welcomed and called to him. It was also good, church going folks like you and me. Just as the apostles sometimes had an “us-vs-them” mentality, seeing themselves as the righteous but the outsiders as sinners who had to reform, we do the same thing. We’re the good folks who have to welcome the bad folks, so that they can become like us. But we’re all sinners, we all have our own issues and problems, and we all have to welcome one another.
I think we all want the church to welcome our ideas and positions, but are we welcoming to the church as we try live the life of the gospel? We all want the church to change, but are we willing to change?
There is a story of a mystic, Maria Simma, who supposedly could communicate with the souls in purgatory. Sort of like in the movie The Sixth Sense. Typically she only listened to the souls when they came to her asking for prayers that they be released, but one day a woman came to the mystic asking her specifically about two people, a woman and a man from her town who had died several months earlier. Maria supposedly was able to contact these folks and reported back to the woman. She said that the woman had already been released into heaven but the man would have to stay in purgatory for a long, long time.
“How can that be?” the woman asked. “The woman was a notorious prostitute who committed suicide and the man was our parish priest, a very holy man! How could he still be in purgatory but the prostitute already be in heaven?” “Well,” the mystic answered, “the prostitute did kill herself by standing in front of an oncoming train, but her last words were ‘At least now, Lord, you won’t have to be disappointed in me any longer.’ But the parish priest refused her a Christian funeral and burial because of who she was and what she had done.”
This may be just a story, but I think you get the point. Mercy always triumphs over judgment. The Diocese of Springfield, Illinois released a study last month that tracked the main reasons people had left their parish and ultimately the Church. The number one reason given was something the priest or deacon had said or done that offended the person.
I know that there have been times when I blew it. Technically I was right when I explained a certain teaching to someone with questions, but the way I said it or the venue I chose to say it in was wrong. Sometimes we are so busy we just fire off a curt response or comment without thinking about what the person is really asking or experiencing. That can come off as callous and unwelcoming. Sometimes we are just inflexible, self-righteous legalists, so sure in ourselves and our positions, and we drive people away. Most of the time we’re not even aware of what we’re doing. We just never see the folks again.
And oftentimes the teachings of the church seem unwelcoming because it’s not “anything goes”. The church does not change with the world; we are called to change the world. And just as Jesus did not accept every lifestyle as good -“Go and sin no more” - the church of Christ cannot either. But sometimes the way we say it is unthinking or highly theological or non-pastoral. That doesn’t mean the teaching is wrong, just our way of doing it may be. We can’t change the truth, but we can change our intent.
We need to be aware of our intent. Are we just being self-righteous or do we truly care about the person when we try to explain or correct? It is a struggle these days to balance welcoming. It takes effort and thoughtfulness and kindness. The message of the gospel is all inclusive and we’re all struggling to receive it and live it. All we are is one beggar helping another beggar to find bread.
And it takes time. When we welcome someone into our home, especially if it is a new guest, we usually spend a bit of time with them. We don’t leave them standing on the doorstep. We invite them in, take their coat, offer them something to eat and drink, and get to know them better. We engage in conversation, not condemnation. And we usually are on our best behavior. How easy it is to discount someone and their situation in the age of social media. How often do we lovingly take the time to truly welcome someone who is struggling?
But hospitality is not giving your guest the run of the house. The owner of the house opens the door but the visitor needs to respect the owner and the house. Making yourself at home does not mean you can trash the place. In that way both show hospitality.
Pope Francis was in the middle of the whirlwind surrounding the Synod on the Family. The core questions was always, “What will Francis do? What side will he come down on?” We he support our agenda or theirs?” Well, in true Francis style, he embraced and welcomed everyone as Jesus did. This is what he said.
“And this is the Church, the vineyard of the Lord, the fertile Mother and the caring Teacher, who is not afraid to roll up her sleeves to pour oil and wine on people’s wounds; who doesn’t see humanity as a house of glass to judge or categorize people. This is the Church, One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and composed of sinners, needful of God’s mercy. This is the Church, the true bride of Christ, who seeks to be faithful to her spouse and to her doctrine. It is the Church that is not afraid to eat and drink with prostitutes and publicans. The Church that has the doors wide open to receive the needy, the penitent, and not only the just or those who believe they are perfect! The Church that is not ashamed of the fallen brother and pretends not to see him, but on the contrary feels involved and almost obliged to lift him up and to encourage him to take up the journey again and accompany him toward a definitive encounter with her Spouse, in the heavenly Jerusalem.”