|As I began to reflect
on the readings for this Sunday, I was reminded of an axiom I learned many
years ago in theology. In Latin it is Ecclesia semper reformanda,
which means the church must always be reformed or the church
is always in need of reform. And that’s something that perhaps
some of us find difficult to accept; that we have a church that is always
in need of reform and has to be constantly undergoing conversion. Those
of us who grew up Catholic, who learned about the church in our religion
classes, learned about the church as the mystical body of Christ.
And so it was something very perfect, glorious, something almost to be
worshiped, Christ. Or we even talked about the church as the perfect
society, giving us the idea that there are no flaws in the church.
And sometimes it comes then as almost a shock to discover that the church
is a very human institution, capable of terrible sins, crimes, and evil.
But if we listen to today’s lessons carefully, we would begin to understand
that this really ought not to surprise us.
In the first lesson from
the prophet Malachi, you go back thousands of years to God’s chosen people.
They have actually gone through a time of purging and a time of suffering
when they were in exile. And they were renewed. They come back to
the Promised Land. They begin to rebuild their temple and carry out the
practices of their religion. And the first thing is there’s corruption,
injustice, exploitation of the poor going on, people not really coming
to worship with any kind of integrity.
And so the prophet says
to those priests, “You priests, who despise God’s name, curse be the cheater
who after promising me a bull from his herd sacrifices a stunted animal.
The warning is for you priests. If you do not listen or concern yourself
to glorify my name,” says Yahweh of hosts, “I will send a curse on you
and curse even your blessings.”
So the priests are being
very strongly condemned by God. God says, “What you try to bless,
won’t be blessed, because you have fallen into sin, injustice, and exploitation.
You cheat at the sacrifices and you don’t bring integrity to what you’re
And, of course, in the
gospel lesson, it’s even more powerfully clear that the religious community
at the time of Jesus, its leadership, was very much in the need of reform.
And when we listen to this lesson, especially if you go on through the
23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel, you might misunderstand it in the sense
that you hear Jesus only condemning the religious leaders of his time.
And, in fact, that chapter of Matthew has often been used, and this is
very wrong, to justify anti-Semitism on the part of the church. We
condemn the Jewish people because we equate them with those that Jesus
is speaking about in the gospel lesson today. And we must never let
that happen. Now Jesus said words like that because some of those
leaders were really corrupt.
But what’s even more
important to remember is that Matthew was putting these words in writing
about 50 or 60 years after Jesus had died. Matthew wrote these words
for the community of Christians in which he lived and he brought forth
these words because, already, in the church at that time of Matthew, the
words of Jesus were being forgotten. People were making distinctions,
separating themselves into those who were special, clergy and then ordinary
people. And the clergy were beginning to want special titles, they
were beginning to wear special robes, they were beginning to give up the
whole idea that Jesus had established.
When he first called
together his disciples, they were to be a community of brothers and sisters,
everyone equal in freedom and dignity. It wasn’t supposed to have
some who were over others.
In the beginning, remember
in the acts of the apostles, St. Luke describes that very first community,
everyone living in common, everyone sharing what they had, all acting as
brothers and sisters together, equal in freedom and dignity. But
within a very short time the church was in need of reform. So that’s
why Matthew brings these words of Jesus forward, because the church in
his day needed reform already.
You go down through history
and you discover quickly that time after time our church has become a church
of scandal, a church of sin, and we have done some terrible things.
You know there was a
time when here in the United States our church, the leaders of our church,
owned slaves, exploited people -- a terrible crime and sin.
But, obviously, all of
us, right now, I’m sure, are vary aware that we have reached another point
in the history of our church here in this country. We are badly in
need of reform. The scandal that has rocked the church for the last
year or so is far from being over. We need to do deep reform if we’re
really going to get at the root of the problems of that scandal.
The charter that the bishops prepared back in Dallas last June isn’t enough.
A week from tomorrow
we will be meeting again, discussing revisions in that charter. But
it doesn’t go far enough. We’re not going to really bring about the
reform of our church that we need. And we ought to face up to this.
Just as Matthew, in writing the gospel challenged the church of his day,
so too must we challenge the church of our day and the leaders of our church.
This week, I received
a letter, and every bishop in the United States received this same letter.
To me, it’s a letter of hope. It comes from lay people, not from bishops.
We’re the ones that need to be addressed. It comes from a group that
calls themselves Voice of the Faithful. Now, this is the group that
started a few months ago with about 50 or 60 people in the basement of
a church somewhere around Boston. It had grown into tens of thousands
of people and is a very real movement for reform in our church.
The president of the
group says, “I am writing to you as president of Voice of the Faithful,
an organization of catholic laity properly formed as an association under
the meaning of Canon 215 in the code of canon law. Voice of the Faithful
exists to serve the Church by helping it address the most serious crisis
in the 500-year history of the Catholic Church in North America.”
Some people might say that’s exaggerated, but it’s probably not.
“The perpetration and institutional cover up of clergy sexual abuse.
Pope John Paul II has called this a matter of ‘shame and scandal.’ This
is, without question, a proper, urgent and responsible purpose for all
Catholics to pursue.”
He’s suggesting that
all Catholics have to be concerned about this and pursue some kind of a
“Voice of the Faithful’s
members have a clear mission: To provide a prayerful voice, attentive
to the Spirit, through which the Faithful, that is members of the church,
can actively participate in the governance and guidance of the Catholic
“We believe that the
role of the laity is central to correcting the causes of the current crisis.
Without substantial and meaningful laity involvement, there is no prospect
for effectively ending the crisis and healing a Church that has suffered
the deep wounds of betrayed trust.”
“We seek structural change.
We know that human behavior is shaped by the systems and structures of
the organization in which one lives and works. The record clearly reveals
that institutional mismanagement of personnel, information and money contributed
to the sexual abuse crisis. We have asked, what structures must be changed
to help ensure such a crisis never again befalls our Church.”
And toward the end of
the letter they say, “We seek a dialogue on how bishops, priests and laity
can implement these recommendations together, and on how we can work effectively
and collaboratively with our pastors to bring about a more active and meaningful
participation of the laity on the parish level. We realize that sound education
in the teachings of the Church is urgently needed to support the changes
that we seek. We solicit your guidance as to how to make this education
available to clergy and laity alike.”
At the end they say,
“Our church has undergone a year of terrible pain and anguish. All Catholics
– clergy and laity alike – are hurting from the loss of trust and confidence
in one another. The commitment to healing these wounds must emanate from
each of us, and we must do it together.”
I hear that letter or
read that letter as a challenge to me as a bishop. And I’m sure it
will be a challenge to all the bishops of this country. When we begin
to discuss, a week from tomorrow, the kinds of changes that are being suggested
for this charter that we developed in Dallas, I think for the most part
there’ll probably be a refusal of the bishops to get down to what these
people are talking about, that the change isn’t just to end the sexual
scandal. That’s obviously the number one thing that has to happen,
but the change has to go deeper. We have to have a church, once more, where
all of us are truly a community of disciples of Jesus equal in freedom
and dignity, where all of us work together as brothers and sisters, where
we eliminate the kind of domineering attitude that has so often befallen
leaders in our church, that they give the orders and everyone else obeys.
We can’t have that kind of a church.
We must have a church
where all of us work together to change what has gone wrong, so that bishops
must be accountable. We can’t have a situation where hundreds of thousands
of dollars can be paid out and no one knows about it. We can’t have a situation
where bishops move people from one place to another without any accountability
on how that happens. And so we need deep reform in our church, and the
people who have organized Voice of the Faithful are committed bring about
But as you notice in
their letter, they address it to the bishops, but they call for the bishops
to awaken a determination in all the people of the church to work together,
to participate in the church at the level of the parish where you can be
an active participant to help shape the direction, the kinds of policies
and so on that the parish follows. But, also, to expand that participation
so that we participate at the diocesan level and also at the national church
level, all of us together.
And so I hear this letter
as a challenge again to me, and to all of us who are here. We must take
seriously this terrible scandal that has happened in our church.
And all of us have to try to discover the way that we can participate in
bringing about the profound changes that are going to be necessary.
I think and I say this
sadly that many bishops will resist this effort on the part of the laity.
They sometimes already refuse to let this group meet in a Catholic church
because they are threatened by it. But we can’t let that fear on the part
of the bishops keep us from bringing about the reform that is truly necessary.
My hope is that Voice
of the Faithful will continue to spread throughout the United States and
that in every part of our country, every parish church like this one, people
will say, “Yes, I have a responsibility. I will discover what I can
do to help bring about the change in the church that is needed.”
That’s the only way we’re going to have true reform that is needed right
As I started off in the
beginning, I said, “The church is always in need of reform.” Certainly,
this is true right now in the United States; we are in need of reform.
And so I urge all of us, first of all, to pray next week that the bishops
will be open to a plea like this that comes from very concerned and devout
and committed Catholic people. Listen to what they are saying, pray
for that. But then, also, I think it’s time for all of us to say, “What
must I do in order to become more active in bringing about the change that
is needed in this church that we all love?”
St. Paul, in the second
lesson today, reminded us about that church at Thessalonica, an extraordinary
church. He said, “I never cease giving thanks to God for you, because
on receiving our message you accepted it not a human teaching but as the
word of God, which it really is. And, as such, it is at work in you
who believe.” And I hope that that’s the way we are, that we hear
the word of God calling us to reform and we understand this is truly God’s
word, not human words, and we commit ourselves to hear it and to act on
it. If that happens, then we can be confident that, once more, our
church will be reformed and we will become again that community of disciples
of Jesus that is sent forth to transform our world into as close an image
of the reign of God as possible. We will begin, truly, to be the church
of Jesus once more.
In the name of the Father
and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.