This is how all will know

Douglas P. McManaman
Homily for the 5th Sunday of Easter.
May 21, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

That is how the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another as I have loved you. How has Christ loved us? The second chapter of Philippians sums it up well: "...Christ who, being in the form of God, did not count equality with God something to be grasped. But he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, becoming as human beings are; and being in every way like a human being, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross."

In other words, God freely entered into human suffering and darkness so that when we suffer, we will not suffer alone, but find him in the midst of our suffering, that is, find the life of grace in the midst of our darkness. That is how he loved us.

We identify with what we love. In the parable of the Last Judgment, we see that Christ identifies with those who suffer, those who are hungry, thirsty, naked, in prison, etc. He identifies with them to the point that to neglect them is to neglect him, and to pay attention to them is to pay attention to him. If we love what Christ loves, if we identify with those whom he loves, others will know that we are different, unusual, that we belong to someone else. That is why so many people took note of Mother Teresa. Her love was profoundly unusual, and it was total. She lived her vow of poverty quite literally; she couldn't care less about the goods and comforts of this world; her heart was drawn to the poor, the suffering, and to the unborn. She was in the world, but she did not love above all things life in this world; she loved what Christ loved above all things, and he identified himself with what he loved, namely the sick, the naked, the hungry and imprisoned, so that these people and Christ were identical. And because they were identical, she saw Christ in them. But to see Christ in them and to love them is to have become Christ. As St. Paul says: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me' (Gal 2, 20). That's what will draw people to Christ; if we love what he loves and become him. In becoming Christ, we make Christ available to those around us, and others will be drawn to him.

But apparently that is not happening. I heard a sermon recently about the decline in Church attendance, and I just received statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) that document the decline. Bishops are calling their priests together for meetings about this very problem. Some dioceses in the U.S. have even hired out consulting firms for strategies on how to attract others to Church. These seem to have adopted a business or corporate model. But Christ said: "No one comes to me unless the Father who sent me draws him" (Jn 6, 44). No consulting firm will point that out. Consulting firms don't have the secret to drawing others to Christ. The Church has it, but for some reason many Church leaders have lost sight of it. The Church is not a business, and if any diocese operates under a business model, it will only experience decline.

Behind that business model is fear, and at the root of fear is desire, often disordered. But perfect love casts out all fear (1 Jn 4, 18). Where there is such fear, love has grown cold. But it is love that draws others in, not strategies employed by the corporate world. The business world is motivated by profit--and there is nothing wrong with profit. But the Church, the Body of Christ, must not be motivated by the desire for self-preservation. It must be motivated by the desire for souls, and souls must never be regarded as sources of income. God Himself provides; Christ said it himself: "Seek first the kingdom of God and all these other things will be provided as well" (Mt 6, 33). God will take care of our needs, which are important but secondary; Christ calls us to be him in the world, to witness to the risen Christ by our life, devoted not to self, but to those whom Christ loves.

The solution to all our problems is Christ. We have to decrease in order that Christ may increase. That's how others are drawn to Christ: "Love one another as I have loved you". We can't love if our lives are ruled by fear, for the two cannot co-exist. We've seen this fear in the Church for centuries now. St. Catherine of Siena addressed this in the 14th century. She writes: "They (bishops) are afraid of offending and making enemies--and all this because of self-love. Sometimes it's just that they would like to keep peace, and this, I tell you, is the worst cruelty one can inflict. If a sore is not cauterized or excised when necessary, but only ointment is applied, not only will it not heal, but it will infect the whole body, often fatally." A bishop of Munich said something similar: "The words of the Bible and of the Church Fathers rang in my ears, those sharp condemnations of shepherds who are like mute dogs; in order to avoid conflicts, they let the poison spread. Peace is not the first civic duty, and a bishop whose only concern is not to have any problems and to gloss over as many conflicts as possible is an image I find repulsive". That bishop was Joseph Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict XVI. In many places today both inside and outside the Church, the predominant concern is to keep the peace and not upset the proverbial applecart. That's self-love, not the love of Christ.

And that's one significant reason among many that we've seen such a decline over the past fifty years. Why should I go to Church to hear what I've been hearing everywhere else in the culture? If all I see are Church leaders who behave in exactly the same way that leaders in the corporate world behave, kowtowing to the latest cultural trends for fear of lost revenues, what will I find there that I cannot find anywhere else? Of course the answer to that question is that I can find the body of Christ, the sacrifice of the Mass, and the forgiveness of my sins; but if no one tells me it is the substance of Christ's body and blood, and no one clearly articulates what constitutes sin nor preaches on the need to confess those sins, how am I to know?

St. Anthony of the Desert said in the third century: "...when the enjoyments of the body are weak, then is the power of the soul strong." That might be the root of the problem today in the Church. The enjoyments of the body are strong, not weak, and so the power of the soul is weak, not strong. Perhaps we've become too rich, too comfortable, and we are afraid of a decline in living standard, whereas we should be afraid primarily for the souls of others, that they will be caught in the many traps that surround them. Things were different in the early Church because life was harder, the Church was poorer. In the first reading, Paul and Barnabas visit the disciples of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, to strengthen their spirits, exhorting them to persevere in the faith, reminding them that it is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God. And they joined fasting to prayer. That is how they were able to bring others in by the thousands: they carried in their bodies the power of Christ, and it was evident they had something of much greater value in their eyes than financial stability.