Sunday, November 20, 2016
A Parish of Mercy: Christ the Redeemer Celebrates the Solemnity of Christ the King
What if I offered to hand out keys to Heaven after Mass today? A few folks might still leave after Communion if they parked poorly or had to get the kids to soccer. But it’s a safe bet there would be quite a lineup to collect the keys.
Who doesn’t want to go to Heaven? There are people who don’t want to go to church, but no one, really, who doesn’t want paradise.
Well, the fact is, we are handing out keys to Heaven at Mass today. The Gospel unlocks the gates of Heaven to those who give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty. The doors of the Kingdom swing wide open to those who welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit prisoners.*
I’ve heard this Gospel a hundred times, but it’s never come alive for me like it has in this Year of Mercy that ends today.
There were many moments of grace during this special year, but for me they all came to a head last Sunday when Archbishop Miller bestowed papal medals on a group of Catholics well known for their dedication to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, the traditional catalogue of Christian charity.
Those who were honoured by the Pope included leaders in Catholic health care and education, dedicated servants of the poor, a pioneer in parish-based prison ministry, and a tireless defender of the unborn. I knew most of them and worked closely with some of them over the years.
But one of the recipients mattered to me more than any other: because his medal, in my eyes and in his, was given to us all.
When the Archbishop handed Denis Forristal the Benemerenti medal, he really bestowed it on this parish community, of which Denis and his wife Mary are true pillars. Everyone who knows the Forristals knows that Mary deserves a medal too, and not just because she has to manage Denis! But to say he shares this honour not only with her but with the parish community recognizes that Denis has helped teach all of us the ways of mercy.
He has performed some works of mercy by himself, travelling in retirement to help emerging nations develop their hotel industry, but most of what he has done has been alongside others, beginning of course with Mary and then with us, his fellow parishioners.
The most notable of Denis’s charitable works was leading our parish sponsorship of the Shaboo family, refugees from Iraq. They wanted to be with us this morning to celebrate, but they are performing a corporal work of mercy—burying the dead—by remaining in their parish to plan funeral rites for a friend who has died.
Everyone has been talking about refugee sponsorship since the Syrian crisis began and the heartstrings of the world were tugged by the sight of boy drowned as his family sought safety. Denis encouraged us to respond to an earlier crisis, the persecution of Christians in Iraq. His wisdom and leadership proved so effective that it is now considered a model throughout the Archdiocese.
Without Denis’s successful leadership of the devoted team that helped the Shaboos find a new home in Canada, it would have been much more difficult for our parish to sponsor three more families from Syria. The dedicated leaders of the settlement teams that have welcomed the two Dayekh families have known from the beginning that the challenges were manageable and that Denis was always available for wise advice.
So now we have three families well-established in Canada and another to arrive just as soon as the government permits them; we are truly welcoming strangers just as Christ the King commands.
My view was blocked as Denis walked forward to receive his medal at the Cathedral. Since I couldn’t see him, I pictured a church full of our parishioners who have been so generous with their time, talent and treasure: they were wearing more medals than you’d see in a crowd of veterans on Remembrance Day.
Our parish is by no means perfect: the parish council and I have talked about many aspects of parish life we hope will grow in the months and years ahead. In particular, we all need to work harder to make sure our young people become true disciples of Jesus—and this can only happen if their priests and parents are intentional disciples themselves. We need to work much harder to share the Gospel with those who haven’t heard it in our neighborhoods and social circles. We need to provide more opportunities for parishioners, old and young, to grow in the life of prayer.
These are our challenges. But today we must celebrate our accomplishments. We have become a parish of mercy, by any standard I know. If you use the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy as a report card on parish life, the results are wonderful proof of dynamic faith in action.
I’ve already mentioned how we welcome strangers through refugee sponsorship. Let me turn to another corporal work of mercy that comes straight from today’s Gospel. Prison ministry has caught fire since it was introduced at Christ the Redeemer just a few years ago. Not only do our volunteers visit prisoners, they support them with prayer, encourage them with small gifts, and help those who have been released.
Feeding the hungry seems to be a specialty in our parish. Just yesterday, the parish conference of the St. Vincent de Paul Society fed four hundred people in the downtown eastside! In a year they provide more than 7500 meals. Do you have any idea of the work involved? More importantly, have we any idea of the love involved? The same is true of parishioners who regularly feed street youth downtown.
A spiritual work of mercy—instruction in the Faith—combines with the corporal work of feeding the hungry when generous parishioners prepare meals for our youth groups and Alpha dinners. And clothing the naked? If the architects of this church had any idea of the amount of donated clothing we would be handling, they’d have added an extra room to the building.
Visiting the sick is a special boast of our community. Two dedicated teams of volunteers visit the two care homes in the parish, and help the priests minister to those who are sick at home and in hospital. More times than I can count, we hear about the sick who need pastoral visits from parishioners who are aware that this is everyone’s responsibility.
During the Year of Mercy we included financial support for many of the works of mercy in our annual Project Advance campaign, which you supported with great generosity.
I could go on and on, right through all fourteen corporal and spiritual works of mercy, but there isn’t time. Let me just say that the Year of Mercy was lived in this parish in a most visible way.
Let’s not forget that mercy, like charity, begins at home. Family life is impossible without mercy. Parish life is impossible without mercy. We show mercy to one another in the parish, avoiding the bitter divisions that have all but destroyed Christian communities in the past and elsewhere. And you show mercy to me, by accepting my shortcomings, occasional impatience and necessary absences.
We have our share of problems and misunderstandings, but in the nearly ten years I’ve been here there has never been a major split in our community. Amidst the hurts that always occur when people live together, amidst the hurts in families and among friends, we are still one family in Christ.
Archbishop Miller spoke eloquent words last Sunday: “In a world damaged by the virus of indifference, the works of mercy are the best antidote to spiritual blindness.”
He prayed that every parish be an oasis and an instrument of mercy.
May that be the goal of each family and of our parish—to be an oasis and an instrument of God’s living mercy in the world!
On our joyful parish feast day, let us resolve to continue the good work we have begun, confident that the merciful King will one day say to each of us “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
* To emphasize the works of mercy, we used the Mass readings for Year A today.