(Homily for Baptism of the Lord)

The U.S. Catholic Church did not fare well last year. An ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll reported that in February, 9 percent of Catholics and 27 percent of all Americans held unfavorable views of the Catholic Church. By December those numbers had risen to 30% of Catholics and 54% of all Americans. The causes of this decline are well known and I do not want to rehash them. What I wish to ask on today’s Feast of the Jesus’ Baptism is how we respond to such disapproval and obloquy.

The most immediate – and natural – response is, “Well, I didn’t do anything wrong! A small group of errant priests sexually abused minors and a few incompetent bishops grossly mishandled the cases. It wasn’t me!” The vast majority of priests – and bishops – as well as almost all deacons and laypeople could make that statement. However, it leaves out an essential fact: membership. In the New Testament membership means a lot more than paying annual dues and sharing common ideals or a common history. Rather, we belong to each other like bodily organs.

The interdependence of bodily organs was dramatically brought home to me in recent months. A relatively young man here in Holy Family had been experiencing sharp abdominal pain, insomnia and nausea. When he finally went to the doctor, he received a terrible diagnosis: pancreatic cancer. Most of us probably pay little attention to our pancreas; maybe do not even know its location. However if it becomes diseased, it affects every other organ, indeed every other cell of the body.

When Jesus allowed John to baptize him, it was like a healthy man taking on organs riddled with infection and cancer. In short time, it would lead to an agonizing death. “He who was without sin became sin for us.” The cross, do not forget, was so shameful that it took centuries before Christians could depict Jesus on it. It would be like us hanging a picture of a man slumped dead in the electric chair.

Yet Jesus did accept shame for our sake. Not because we are lovable, charming creatures. All of us know people who think they are bright and irresistible when in reality they are tedious bores. Jesus came for just such ones.

If we bear a bit of shame, public disapproval, is it such a bad thing? Perhaps the Lord allowed the scandal to explode in 2002, not just to purify his Church, but that you and I would gain something from the disgrace of certain priests. A couple of those accused here in Seattle were my contemporaries in the seminary. Exposed in the media, they feel a shame which has brought them to the brink of bitterness, even despair. I am not making these men into martyrs. They know what they did was hideously wrong and that, even though they served for fifteen or twenty years after the incidents, they can never minister again as priests.

It is perhaps too soon to talk about redemption. First, we must face the hurt and rage of the victims.* But we can only do that if we are convinced of our membership in Christ and each other - that we are like different organs of one body.

For that reason we ask Jesus to take us with him into the waters. To enter them, we must leave our carefully constructed image on the shore. And forget all the posturing.** (It didn't fool many - and even less cared.) But if we do go into the waters, there will be a great pay off. You and I long to hear certain words, but can only hear them by joining ourselves to Jesus, first in shame, but then in joyful surpise:

“You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”


*It bears repeating that our first concern must be the victims, their healing. Various advocacy groups have complicated this process by attempting to use the victims' anger to promote their own agendas.

**The 2002 scandal gave ample opportunity for people to strike exalted public postures. We saw it in editorials, television pundits, liberals desiring to dismantle the Church and even in conservatives frustrated by episcopal inaction. I noticed it in magazines like New Oxford Review and Catholic World Report. What struck me was not so much the criticisms, but the impoverished sense of membership. It may take us some time to regain the conviction that - in Christ - we belong to each other.

Versión Castellana

From Archives:

Baptism of Lord 2013: Generous Love
2011: Seven Teachings about Baptism
2010: Saved Through the Bath of Rebirth
2009: The Power of Baptism
2008: Road to Sanity
2005: Most Shocking
2004: With Whom I Am Well Pleased
2003: The Membership
2002: The Grace of Baptism
2000: Limits of Solidarity

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Seattle Pilgrimage to Rome, June 7-13, 2010 Year of the Priest

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Parish Picture Album

MBC - Mary Bloom Center, Puno, Peru

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