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The Peace Pulpit
Homilies by Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton

By special arrangement, The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company is able to make available Bishop Thomas J. Gumbleton's weekly Sunday homilies given at Saint Leo Church, Detroit, MI.  Each homily is transcribed from a tape recording of the actual delivery and made available to you as an NCR Web site exclusive.  You may register for a weekly e-mail reminder that will be sent to you when each new homily is posted.  From time to time, Bishop Gumbleton is traveling and unable to provide us with the homily for the week.
NOTE:  The homilies are available five days after they are given, always on Friday. 
November 3, 2002
Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

This week's readings **

Malachi 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10

A great King am I, says the LORD of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations. And now, O priests, this commandment is for you: If you do not listen, if you do not lay it to heart, to give glory to my name, says the LORD of hosts, I will send a curse upon you and of your blessing I will make a curse. You have turned aside from the way, and have caused many to falter by your instruction; you have made void the covenant of Levi, says the LORD of hosts. I, therefore, have made you contemptible and base before all the people, since you do not keep my ways, but show partiality in your decisions. Have we not all the one father? Has not the one God created us? Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?

1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13

Brothers and sisters: We were gentle among you, as a nursing mother cares for her children.  With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you
not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us.  You recall, brothers and sisters, our toil and drudgery.  Working night and day in order not to burden any of you, we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

And for this reason we too give thanks to God unceasingly, that, in receiving the word of God from hearing us, you received not a human word but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe. 

Matthew  22:1-12

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.  Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. 
For they preach but they do not practice.  They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people's shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them.  All their works are performed to be seen.  They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.  They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.' As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.' You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. 
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.  Do not be called 'Master';
you have but one master, the Christ.  The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."

* A longtime national and international activist in the peace movement, Bishop Gumbleton is a founding member of Pax Christi USA and an outspoken critic of the sanctions against Iraq.

He has appeared on numerous radio and television programs, and has published numerous articles and reports.

** Scripture texts in this work are in modified form from the American Standard Version of the Bible and are available as part of the public domain.

For your convenience, the Scripture texts, as they appear in the Lectionary for Mass for Use in the Dioceses of the United States, second typical edition, Copyright © 1998, 1997, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Washington, D.C., may be found at the website of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCC).


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 doing.”

     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 resolution.

     “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 Church.”

     “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 that change.

     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 now.

     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.

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