September 26, 2021

Deacon Tim Papa Homily
Always Try To Be On God's Side

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle B

Numbers 11:25-29; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-48

An artist that was in the White House during the Civil War reported that he heard a minister tell the president that he "hoped the Lord is on our side." Abraham Lincoln, he wrote, responded, "I am not at all concerned about that…. But it is my constant anxiety and prayer that I and this nation should be on the Lord's side" [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Abraham_Lincoln#cite_no.... I really like this quote, for it in a nutshell gets at the qualities that made Lincoln a great man: a combination of humility of spirit that made him constantly question his stance and yet have a certainty when he acted so as to carry out his objectives. It also gets at one of the themes of today's readings, that of being sure that we know what is the will of God.

Joshua in the first reading thinks that he knows the will of God, and that God could not possibly mean to give the gift of prophecy to the two men who were absent from the tent, but he is wrong. Moses is there to correct Joshua and give him a valuable lesson in seeing the world as God made it and not through eyes clouded in jealousy. Then again in the Gospel John is telling Jesus that someone is doing something good, helping people, but in a way that must be bad and against the will of Jesus. Once again, this time Jesus is there to set John straight. How wonderful it would be if Moses and Jesus were there for us all of the time to give us lessons as we work our way through our lives.

So how do we know we are doing the true will of God? In the words of Hamlet, “aye, there's the rub.” We Catholics have an enormous wealth of information to use in trying to make our decisions in life. We have the Bible that most Protestant denominations would say is their only source of theological insight. Catholics also have the writings of the many Church Doctors, such as Augustine and Aquinas, as well as wonderful insight from other saints. We have the ecumenical councils, where we believe that the bishops, when they come together as a body to study and pronounce on issues, carry the status of Christian Truth. And of course we have that great document, the Catechism, which is a concise synopsis of the other three sources into a clear and organized format.

Still, it is still hard to know when we are in complete alignment with the will of God because life is messy and it often leaves us with choices that are not clear, usually in situations where the options have competing benefits or all result in some sort of bad outcome. For instance, the Church has taught that killing in self-defense, or wars in self-defense, are justifiable morally. But there are many caveats to this teaching, such as that the use of non-lethal force must have been considered and rejected for some sound reason.

There is one issue that I've not spoken on in a homily since becoming a deacon, but is one in which the scriptures just spoke to: the teaching of Christ in today’s Gospel and in several other passages about leading a child astray. It seems like the past offenses involving sexual misconduct of members of the Catholic Church keeps coming up in the media. Most accounts you read about today are decades-old cases. The media companies today know exactly what type of stories result in the most viewership on television or clicks on on-line stories, and that means they talk about salacious stories more often than any other type, because unfortunately that is what people listen to and don't channel surf away from. But let us not blame the media for this – it is a problem, and the Church needs to continue to deal with it.

In my mind there are two aspects of this problem. First, there are the abusers: priests, deacons, lay ministers, teachers, and others that engage in sinful and unlawful behavior, and must be held accountable for their actions. In a Church with over a billion people in it, the fact that some of them are criminals should not be a surprise. All large institutions have people in them that have slipped through the cracks of screening systems and then done terrible things – for instance, the US women’s Olympic Gymnastics Team has just recently been in the news. Sexual abusers find their way to jobs that allow them to access victims most readily, and therefore become priests, youth ministers, teachers, coaches, doctors, and the like. The fact that a Church should have some people who fit this description should not come as a shock.

What is truly shocking, and makes me incredibly angry, is that these criminals, when credible allegations were made, were allowed to escape justice by members of the clergy who were in leadership roles. They hushed up the matter, I guess to try to save themselves, although they would say the Church, embarrassment, and for their efforts they allowed more people to be abused and the Church to be scandalized horribly. Like I said, the fact that there were a few bad apples in a barrel as large as our Church is not worst of the problem, although the damage to the victims was devastating; the institutional travesty is that some of those who were put in charge to deal with the problem did nothing, and sometimes worse than nothing by covering it up and allowing it to continue. God promises us, today in the Gospel, that these will be held accountable by Him, but they also must be held accountable by others in our Church.

This problem has been dealt with in many ways. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has put into place written procedures that must be followed whenever any allegation is made, to ensure that a thorough investigation is conducted, law enforcement is involved, and lay personnel are part of the process for transparency, and I know that our diocese has used these procedures on the allegations which have surfaced in the last several years. The screening process for new clergy is extensive, and lay staff members are also put through serious background checks. Multiple rules are in place to prevent adults from having one-on-one conversations with youth, whether in person at the church or at a church-sponsored event or on social media. Phone numbers for confidential reporting are available and can be found in today’s bulletin.

However, saying that the abusers and enablers are not on God’s side is not saying that we that oppose their actions are on His side. Abraham Lincoln was keenly aware that, while he thought that those supporting slavery were wrong, that didn’t make his side or the cause of the war right – they could both be wrong. Therefore, each person here today must also participate in helping to root out the problem of abuse in our Church. We don't, we can't, and we shouldn't screen all parishioners who wish to join our church, and there can easily be a person with evil intentions here among us now or in the future. Therefore, we require parents or guardians to accompany minors around the church facilities – to the bathroom, for example. Many that volunteer for ministry need to submit to simple background screening checks if they interact with youth. And everyone needs to keep an eye out for inappropriate behavior, especially when staff members are not present. These may seem by some to be a bother, but please offer them as part of your gift back to God, as a way of loving your neighbor by making His house a safer place for all of the little ones that Christ tells us we must protect and never allow to be lead astray.

We now begin the second half of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Christ offers us His body as the perfect sacrifice for us, and in joining with Him we ensure that we are on the side of God, since we must be – He is a part of us in a material way. As we go forth, we remain on God's side by ensuring that we protect those around us – the poor, the disadvantaged, the vulnerable. Let us pray for the victims of these and all crime, and resolve to do our part to prevent this type of evil from leading anyone astray from His word and the salvation that is His Church.

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