Four Hundred and Fifty

My three hundredth pastoral reflection, written about three years ago, was kind of a review of the purpose of these reflections as a teaching aid at a time when, post-Vatican II, we priests have to give homilies based on the Sunday’s readings and not sermons based on things that perhaps need to be taught.  I also mentioned that it was a concern to me that there are always people who not only refuse to pick up and read the parish newsletter, but in doing so also don’t pick up and read the pastoral reflections that may be attached to them.  Three years and another hundred-and-fifty reflections later, sadly nothing has changed in that regard (meaning they probably won’t be reading this one either).  Of course it may be that the people concerned simply don’t like what I write – well, OK, but that still doesn’t explain why they won’t even take and read the parish newsletter to know what is going on in their faith community.  On the other hand it may be that they aren’t interested in being taught things they’d prefer not to know, but if they are working on the principle that “where ignorance is bliss…” then that would be a cause of considerable concern to me.

At my ordination to the priesthood in 1993, I stood before God as the bishop asked me a series of questions, priestly promises, including: “Are you resolved to exercise the ministry of the word worthily and wisely, preaching the Gospel and explaining the Catholic faith?” and I answered “I am” to each of them.  And every year at the Chrism Mass we priests stand before God again to renew our priestly promises and the bishop asks us a series of questions including: “Are you resolved…to discharge faithfully the sacred office of teaching, following Christ the Head and Shepherd, not seeking any gain, but moved only by zeal for souls?” and we answer “I am” to each of them.  Promises made before God and for which, one day, I will have to be accountable.

The “good old” pre-Vatican II “hell and damnation” sermons from pulpit-thumping parish priests may not have been the ideal, but at least we knew where we stood.  Post-Vatican II priests are limited to giving homilies based on the readings of the day which don’t always give much scope for teaching things that need to be taught, or to catch people up on aspects of their faith that their Catholic education may not have imparted – and sadly there’s a lot of that about. “To teach or not to teach” (to misquote Hamlet) becomes every priest’s dilemma, and for me the answer has been “yes to teach” but then comes the challenge of how to do it.  If we have to give only homilies and they don’t always allow us to address specific aspects of Catholic doctrine, then we have to come up with other ways and for me that has been writing pastoral reflections based on my experience over the years of the vacuum left when things haven’t been taught, and filling that vacuum with reference to scripture, the catechism, and Church law.  Also these reflections are designed to be taken home so people can read them in their own time and at their own pace and, if they need to, to come back with questions about what they’ve read – which they couldn’t do in church and were never invited to when sermons ruled the roost.

The fact that some people walk straight past the parish newsletters ignoring them, and with them the reflections I have written for their spiritual benefit, or they are left on the table by some who do take a newsletter, is not only rather insulting, but it is, as I said earlier, a matter of considerable concern because even if in doing so they are rejecting my thoughts and words, they may also be rejecting God’s word and Church teaching and that could have serious consequences for their salvation.

In St Luke’s gospel (16 v 19-31) Jesus tells a parable about the man who dies and finds himself in Hades because of the way he had lived his life.  He calls out to Abraham to relieve him of his suffering, but Abraham replies that there is a gulf between them keeping everyone either in heaven or in hell according to where they deserve to be.  So then the rich man asks Abraham to warn his brothers so that they don’t end up in Hades as well.  Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets, let them listen to them”, but the man responds, “Ah no, father Abraham, but if someone comes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  To which Abraham replies, “If they will not listen either to Moses or to the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead” – Jesus was referring to himself of course.  

The point of the parable is that there are no second chances.  We have our entire lives to learn how we should be living, but if we fail to learn while we can, then when we find ourselves standing before God on Judgment Day, or the day of our own personal judgment whichever comes first, condemned for our failings in life, it will be too late then to do anything about it, and we will only have ourselves to blame.  It will be no use trying to tell God we didn’t know, or no one told us, when God knows that we should have known because we were told often enough but didn’t listen or chose not to take any notice. 

The same point is made in a non-scriptural “parable” told by the character of a priest (played by Karl Malden) in the U.S. drama The West Wing and which I have included before in these reflections:

There was a man who lived by a river.  He heard a radio report that the river was about to flood the town and that all the residents were to evacuate their homes.  But the man said, “I’m religious, I pray to God, he loves me and he’ll save me.”  The waters rose up and a chap in a rowing boat came along and shouted, “Hey you, the town is flooding, let me take you to safety.”  But the man shouted back, “I’m religious, I pray to God, he loves me and he’ll save me.”  A helicopter hovered overhead and a crewman with a megaphone shouted, “Hey you down there, the town is flooding, let me drop this rope ladder and I’ll take you to safety.”  But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him, and God would save him.  Well, the man drowned and standing at the Pearly Gates he said to God, “Lord, I’m a religious man, I pray, I thought you loved me.  Why did this happen?”  God said, “I sent you a radio report, a man in a rowing boat, a helicopter… what are you doing here?”

It’s the same message: the man had received every help God could send him but having failed to make use of them it was now too late and he only had himself to blame.

The other side of the coin is that while nobody is going to be held accountable for not knowing something a priest failed to teach, the priest certainly will be and that’s a position I would prefer never to be in.  I well remember how things were before the Second Vatican Council and how much things changed in the years afterwards – especially in the areas of catechetics, liturgy, and scripture.  Pope John XXIII’s call when he convened the Council was for the windows of the Church to be thrown open to let the fresh air of the Spirit blow through.  At the same time nothing of the essence of the Faith changed.  In his introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope John Paul said:

         The principle task entrusted to the Council by Pope John XXIII was to guard and present better the precious deposit of Christian doctrine in order to make it more accessible to the Christian faithful… With the help of God, the Council Fathers were able to produce a considerable number of doctrinal statements and pastoral norms which were presented to the whole Church. There the Pastors and Christian faithful find directives for that renewal of thought, action, practices and moral virtue, of joy and hope, which was the very purpose of the Council.

But then St Paul said in his letter to the Romans:

They will not ask God’s help unless they believe in him, and they will not believe in him unless they have heard of him, and they will not hear of him unless they get a preacher, and they will never have a preacher unless one is sent. (10 v 14-15)

People would never know what had come out of Vatican II unless their parish priest at the time taught them, and even if he taught them there would always be people missing from Mass that day and they would never know what they had missed, and so parishes would become like bars of Aero full of little holes where teaching had been missed or, worse still, ignored – even, sometimes, on the part of priests.

In the Code of Canon Law it says:

The parish priest exercises the pastoral care of the community entrusted to him (carrying out) the offices of teaching and sanctifying…with the

assistance of lay members of Christ’s faithful. (para 519)

(He) has the obligation of ensuring that the word of God is proclaimed in its entirety to those living in the parish.  He is therefore to see to it that (they) are instructed in the truths of faith, especially by means of the homily…and by catechetical formation. (para 528)

We are all familiar with in-service training and professional development days and we expect professionals to keep up with what is current in their field and so benefit from their experience and expertise.  Why would people not have the same expectation of their priests as spiritual professionals?  And unless a person has spent six years in a seminary studying theology, and philosophy, and scripture, and spirituality, and liturgy, and church history, and canon law, and moral theology – as their priest has – then what grounds can they possibly have for considering that he has nothing to teach them that they don’t already know?  Or are they are simply trying to avoid learning something they’d prefer not to know so they can continue doing what they have always done with what they consider to be a clear conscience? – which makes as much sense as crossing the road with your eyes closed believing you’re perfectly safe because you can’t see any traffic.

So this is now the four-hundred-and-fiftieth pastoral reflection that you have received from me, about a half of them having been written since I came to the parish.  I would like to think that it’s also the four-hundred-and-fiftieth that you have read, but that might be being optimistic!

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