John Paul II once said that Mother Teresa’s should be the face the Church presents to the world. She built her life around the Gospel, two passages in particular: (1) Jesus’ words from the Cross, “I Thirst.” She interpreted this as meaning not that Jesus thirsted for water but for us and our love, and she determined to live her life in such a way that Jesus’ thirst would be quenched. (2) Today’s gospel, Jesus’ dramatic portrait of the Last Judgment, the sheep on one side, the goats on the other, the former destined for heaven, the latter for hell, all based on how they treated others, which, Jesus said, amounts to how they treated him. Mother Teresa liked to say that when we stand before the Just Judge, he will take us by the hand and count out on our five fingers, “You—Did—It—To--Me.”
That’s quite a challenge, but it should also be an inspiration, and, let’s face it, we need all the inspiration we can get in this crazy world. We’d like to think that kindness, charity, and self-sacrifice come naturally to everyone, but by so thinking, we ignore innate human selfishness and ego-centricity. We ignore, too, that we’re heirs to two thousand years of Christian teaching and the Christian example of the saints, imagining that these are superfluous, that we’re all born naturally inclined to be the sheep in Jesus’ parable. It’s so naïve. It’s so dangerous. Ultimately it’s the death of faith, hope, and love.
The great American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, got it just right when he said that “We’re born broken; we live by mending; the grace of God is the glue.” Or to put it otherwise, we’re born tribal; we’re born selfish; we’re born acting as though we were the center of the universe, as though we were king or queen of all. And it’s a life’s work to put Christ in the center and get ourselves out, and we need all the help, reminders, and inspiration we can get to pull it off. That’s what the Church is for. That’s why Christ founded it. That’s why He preserves it in spite of all its flaws.
The Church is here to proclaim Christ King, to remind us, inspire us, help us to keep Him King, not ourselves. Only in Him do we really know who God is and what He’s like. Only in Him do we really understand who we are and what we’re called to be. Only in Him do we rightly grasp the true nature of love. We’re not born with the knowledge of these things. That knowledge is not out there like the air we breathe. We get it from Jesus and His Church. If we abandon them, if we take them lightly, treating them nonchalantly, if we fail to take seriously their reminders, their inspirations, their help, our default position is not Christ-like purity, kindness, generosity, and self-sacrifice.
It may seem as if it is for a while, just as cut flowers can continue to look beautiful for a while, but cut off from their roots and nourishment, they’re doomed, and cut off from Christ and His Church, either through outright rejection or casual neglect, our faith, hope, and love will eventually fade and fail.
Today’s Feast reminds us of who the center of the universe is, who ought to be the center of our lives, and of how we’ll be judged by Christ the King. You Did It To Me. I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get.
I don’t know if any of you are J.R.R. Tolkien fans, but even if you’ve never read any of his books, you’ve probably heard of the movies based on his books that came out a few years ago. His Lord of the Rings Trilogy is one of the great literary epics of all time. There are those who would say that Tolkien wrote some of the most beautiful and profound words ever put to paper. Fr. Joseph Fessio, a Jesuit and founder of Ignatius Press, was once asked what books, other than the Bible, he’d take with him if he knew he were going to be stranded on a desert island. He shocked his interviewer by responding unhesitatingly The Lord of the Rings.
In the middle of the first volume of this great epic, the central character, a diminutive creature named Frodo, weighed down and wearied under the burden of his terrible mission, says to his friend Gandalf, a wise old wizard, “I wish I had never lived to see these times.” And Gandalf replies very gently, “We all feel like that now and then, but the times in which we live are not ours to choose; we can only choose what we’ll do with the times we’ve been given.”
Today’s readings are about the choices we make concerning what to do with the times and other circumstances we’re given. The woman praised in the Book of Proverbs is praised precisely because, given the times in which she lived, she made the right choices. Life for those around her—her husband and family, the poor and needy—was better and more blessed for her being more concerned with their welfare than with her own vanity.
In our second reading, St. Paul explicitly talks about times and seasons and the coming of the Lord like a thief in the night, but says that we have nothing to fear if we live as children of the light, walking in the way of the Lord.
Jesus, for his part, tells one of his famous parables, this one about the effective and Godly use of the gifts and talents we’re given. He’s not giving advice on financial investments, although these too can be made and used in Godly ways; he’s telling us that we’ve been given time, talent, and treasure to be invested wisely, for the glory of God and the good of each other, and that we’ll be judged on how well we make use of the things He’s given us. Do we squander His gifts? Do we use them chiefly to make life easier for ourselves? Or do we, like the woman in Proverbs, use what God has given us to bring blessings on others?
To put it another way, do we treat life like a pilgrimage on which we help one another on our journey to God, or like a vacation on which the needs of others are perceived as interfering with our enjoyment?
The message of today’s liturgy is that we are pilgrims, not tourists in this life, that we each have a mission (which is our reason for being here) to be blessings to each other, that we’re called to pray more than to play, to serve more than to be served, to give more than to receive.
My little friend Frodo and his friend Gandalf were part of a fellowship, “the fellowship of the ring.” The odds against them seemed overwhelming, their chance of success or victory almost nil, but success or victory, in the end, was not theirs to achieve. All they could achieve was fidelity to their mission and to each other, and because they were faithful to those two things, victory was given to them.
We are the fellowship of Jesus Christ, called to faithfully bring his light to each other in these times using the gifts he’s given us, for his glory and the good of each other. We are called to be pray-ers more than players, givers more than takers, pilgrims more than tourists. If we are faithful to our calling and to each other, Christ will see to the victory, not in the short run necessarily, but in the long run, in eternity, which, after all, is all that really matters.
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome, the oldest church in Christendom, the Mother Church, dating back, in its original form, to 324 AD. It, not St. Peter’s, is the parish church of the Pope, and so it’s an apt symbol of the entire Church and of our world-wide union with the Pope. I thought it might be worthwhile on this Feast to reflect on the subject of the Church and our relationship to her. I’m tempted to put you through a little exercise I was put through on a priest retreat I once made. The retreat master asked each of us to think about how we would describe the Church and how we felt about her, preferably summing up what we were thinking with a memorable image of some sort.
One of the retreatants captivated us all with this thought-provoking image. The Church, he said, is like a very beautiful woman, one, however, who, with age and the rigors of a hard life and mistakes made along the way, is no longer fresh, young, and alluring. She still has much to give but also much to be forgiven, and, if she were just anyone, might not attract one’s allegiance; but as it is she’s like my mother, he said, and so, with all her wrinkles, still beautiful, and with all her mistakes, still deserving of love and gratitude. When people bad-mouth her, it’s because to them she’s nobody special, just another old lady, but, he continued, to me she’s very special and utterly unique, and what they say breaks my heart, just as when she goes astray it breaks my heart. The one thing I’m certain of, he concluded, is that I’ll never abandon her; I owe her too much, and she needs me too much.
Now I’m going to guess that almost no non-practicing Catholics feel that way about the Church, and I suspect very few practicing Catholics do either. I hope I’m wrong about that. I’ll bet, however, that many of you do feel towards spouses, children, other family, even friends the way that priest said he felt towards the Church, but you probably don’t feel that way about strangers. If you hear something bad about a stranger, read it in the news, let’s say, what you hear is all you know, and that pretty much sums up the person for you. When it’s family or friends, what you hear is received in the context of a much broader picture and weighed against all the good you know about them as well as your emotional attachment to them.
I wonder if often we treat and judge the Church like a stranger rather than like family or a friend, perhaps like an institution or a business, a filling station, maybe, or some other service provider. The Bible’s vision of the Church is very like the one that priest-retreatant described. So is the saints’ vision of the Church, even though some of them have been persecuted by her. St. Teresa of Avila, whose Feast was October 15, was hauled before the Inquisition, but as she lay dying, her last words were, “I am a daughter of the Church.”
Today we celebrate the Feast of a church, really the Feast of the Church: her long history, her universal reach, her enormous contributions to souls and civilization, her terrible trials, her divine origin, and yes, her oh-so-human imperfections. It’s all there, and we can make whatever we like of it. What we make of it will depend largely on whether we see her as our Mother or a stranger, beloved family or just a business. It’s worth giving some thought.