Saturday, October 6, 2012

The Faith INCLUDES the Plan (Sunday 27.B)


When I was appointed pastor of this parish, a friend told me somewhat sourly that I’d find very few young people here. Turned out he’d left the parish some time before, and he couldn’t have been more wrong. We have many youth and young adults at Christ the Redeemer, and they add a lot to our faith community.

One of those who stood out from the day I arrived was a young man I’ll call Philip. He was actively involved in the parish, reliable, intelligent and serious about the faith. On top of all that, he was a very pleasant and genuine person.

Then all of a sudden he wasn’t around anymore. He’d stopped coming to church.

In a parish this size, I can’t normally chase after the lost sheep, but I felt I needed to know what had happened in Philip’s life; maybe I, or someone else in the parish had offended him—I had no idea. So I asked if he’d come to see me. He was both gracious and respectful and came promptly for a visit. I didn’t beat around the bush.

“Philip, why have you stopped coming to church?”

His answer was simple but it was firm: because of Catholic teaching on homosexuality. He could not reconcile the Church’s teaching on this subject with his personal beliefs about the dignity and rights of individuals.

Note that he didn’t say it was because of how the Church treated some homosexual person he knew, or because he himself was such a person; nothing of the sort. Nor had he lost his faith in Christ. But he was unable to accept this specific teaching, and that prompted him to stop practicing the faith.

It was a sincere position that he had obviously spent some time thinking through.

Few things in the parish have bothered me more than losing Philip’s regular participation. And it bothers me particularly as we kick off the Year of Faith this week.  When Pope Benedict announced the Year in an apostolic letter called “The Door of Faith,”   he wrote that “to enter through that door is to set out on a journey that lasts a lifetime.”

But what interrupted that journey for Philip? I wonder whether it might have been more of a failure on the Church’s part than a failure on his.

Was he taught the faith in a way that emphasized it as a path to a full and abundant life? All too often we learn the faith as a series of moral prohibitions—do’s and don’ts, we often call them. It’s certainly true that faith makes demands and requires us to live in a certain way, but when it comes to Christian teaching on sexuality and marriage, it sometimes seemed like do’s and don’ts were all we got.

The person who changed all that for me was an Oblate priest, Father Joe Hattie. I’d known him some years before, but we bumped into each other in Rome in 1985 or so, when he was studying at the recently-opened John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family.

His studies, under the direction of the Canadian Cardinal Edouard Gagnon, were not about prohibitions but about a vision of the human person—a grand vision, an inspiring vision—that originated at Creation, was described in our first reading today from the first book of the Bible, and then completed by Christ himself in the words we have just heard from the Gospel of Mark.

Since then, I have tried to grow in my understanding of the Creator’s plan for man and woman, and to at least glimpse the truths contained in Pope John Paul’s “theology of the body,” a profound meditation on the human person and human sexuality.

But it’s not easy! Do’s and don’ts can be spelled out in a few minutes; absorbing the complex plan of creation is a work that can take years. Jesus acknowledges how tough it is when he says that Moses allowed the Chosen People the option of divorce because they were just plain unwilling to accept the tough truth of God’s original plan.

Speaking of divorce—while Philip rebelled against Church teaching on same-sex issues, others have had to confront the hard teachings on divorce and remarriage. Here, I’d have to say, I have been more successful in convincing people that the teaching is God’s truth, however difficult it may be to live out.

Some of my favourite parishioners are people who divorced and remarried, or who married a divorced person. They accept, with personal pain, that this teaching isn’t a man-made rule but something that comes from the very words of Christ. Unable for various reasons to live fully in accord with what the Lord taught—and who of us manages that?—they abstain respectfully from the Eucharist and bear witness to the truth about marriage. Others are able, in the words of Blessed John Paul, to “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence” and thus are able to receive the Eucharist without contradiction.

When I first saw the readings for Mass today, I admit I was disappointed.  At the beginning of the Year of Faith, I wanted to talk about faith, not about marriage or morality. Fortunately, our younger parishioners have taught me a new word—facepalm—so I knew just what to do! I facepalmed myself, because I realized that the Church’s faith includes everything I’m talking about.

The Year of Faith must be a year to celebrate the whole faith: the Blessed Trinity, our redemption in Christ, and the saving power of the Sacraments, for sure, but faith too in Christ and his teaching about marriage and sex, both in the words he spoke, such as those we’ve heard in the Gospel reading today, but also in the Word he speaks through the Church’s unbroken and unshaken Tradition, which has come down to us through the ages.

These teachings are not as central as the truths we profess in the Creed, but they are just as true. They come no less from Christ. They can no more be changed than any other Catholic teaching can be changed; they form part of the rock on which we stand.

Just as important, these tough teachings are life-giving. Eternal life, certainly, but also a better life on earth if we trust fully in the Author of creation even when our human judgement can’t quite figure out how he’s going to work things out.

Let’s pray this year for an increase in faith—for my young friend Philip, for those who struggle with difficult marital situations, and for all of us. Let’s remember throughout the year that as Catholics we place our faith not only in the written Word of God, but equally in “the Holy Spirit, who leads the Church across the centuries as we await the Lord’s glorious return.” (Apostolic Letter Porta Fidei, 1)

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