Sunday, August 23, 2009

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Josh 24:1-15; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

In today’s gospel passage Jesus says to his disciples, "Does this shock you?" He is referring to statements he made earlier about himself being "the living bread come down from heaven." And "whoever eats of this bread will live forever. The disciples don’t understand and struggle to understand his teaching. As a result many of his disciples no longer followed him.

It would be easy to say that just within my own lifetime many Catholics have had to face Jesus’ question: "Does this shock you?" There were all of the changes after the Second Vatican Council which introduced one of the most massive reorganizations of the Catholic Church in the last five hundred years. Many Catholics were shocked. Then there was the large exodus of priests and sisters leaving the priesthood and religious life in the 1960s and 70s. Many Catholics were shocked. In the early 1990s there was the priest sex abuse scandal and again many Catholics were shocked. It’s been a tough fifty years for many in the Catholic Church. The reasons for the distress have not always been the same, but they have all been upsetting.

But we should step back and take a closer look at this situation and ask some hard questions. Was Jesus’ question many years ago a way of alerting his followers to the reality that shocks of faith are inevitably going to happen to them? Maybe. There’s definitely a tendency that a lot of people have to think that faith and religion should always comfort and console them. If it doesn’t, then there must be something wrong with it. But neither Jesus nor the New Testament writers say that faith is always consoling. Consoling at times, yes, but also shocking at other times. That’s not easy to accept. Christian faith is indeed a challenge for people’s lives. Faith is a two-edged sword; sometimes it comforts and sometimes it confronts.

I would even say that some shock in matters of faith is absolutely necessary for an individual to grow into a mature faith. There is without doubt a shock that comes when one confronts the challenge of moving from a childhood expression of faith to an adult expression of faith. It’s all the more shocking when it happens in force-fed fashion. I used to see that all the time in the seminary. Young men came with great ideals to study for the priesthood, usually feeling very secure in their childhood expression of faith. Then they learned that the Catholic faith didn’t just drop fully formed from heaven but in fact grew, evolved, and sometimes devolved in a historical process. They learned that the bible didn’t just drop fully formed from heaven but was shaped by an ordinary human process of writing. They learned that the Church isn’t always perfect, and has in fact committed grievous mistakes in its history. These are all shocks of faith to them. Believe me, I’ve seen enough seminary students crying in my office that their faith has been shaken and they don’t know where they are going. I try to patiently explain to them the process of moving from a childhood expression of faith to an adult expression of faith. They have to be patient with themselves and their educational project. And eventually most of them pull through. But it’s still a hard challenge for them.

Shocks of faith will come for all of us. Jesus told us to expect them. Let’s pray that we use them productively to grow to a more mature faith.

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